At the Movies

Michael Wood

Can you die in a synecdoche and would it be a good thing if you could? Would it be like dying in a parenthesis, as Mrs Ramsay does in To The Lighthouse, or would it be entirely different? At the end of Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s first film as a director, Caden Cotard seems to die as a theatrical version of himself inside a replica of Manhattan in a warehouse in Manhattan. A voice that reaches him by wire and microphone has for some time been telling him what to do and what to say. Now it says quite gently, ‘Die,’ and he does. Or does he? Perhaps this is the dream death he awards himself. The voice is that of the actor playing Cotard as the director of his vast autobiographical extravaganza, a woman who has sought out the part and taken over. Is there another Cotard somewhere writing these lines for her? All this comes after most of Cotard’s friends and associates have seen themselves represented by actors in his ongoing work, and after the actor who used to play Cotard, tiring of subterfuge or failing to understand the nature of artifice, has flung himself from a parapet to his death.

Let’s consider something easier but not unrelated. You can certainly die in Schenectady, in reality and in this movie, since that’s what our hero’s parents do. He lives there himself at the start of the film, directing plays at the local playhouse, caught between his mounting, inventive hypochondria and his possibly real ailments. There is definitely something wrong with the plumbing in his house, since a tap explodes and gashes his head while he is shaving. But that’s the least of it.

The signs are all bad for Cotard (played with an amazing mixture of grace and doom by Philip Seymour Hoffman), and not just the signs. A professor on the local radio reads a bleak poem by Rilke, Cotard sees the news of Harold Pinter’s death in the paper, Asian flu is spreading, the first black graduate of the University of Mississippi has just died. Cotard’s wife is about to leave him, taking their little girl with her. The play he is currently directing is Death of a Salesman, and his gimmick is to have young actors take the roles of older people – because they will, if they don’t die first, become older people, and the audience is to feel this in the performance. Nice idea, but Cotard has become a little obsessive about it. Before his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves he asks her if he has disappointed her. She says, too weary even to be unkind, everyone is disappointing once you get to know them. She doesn’t say we’re all just synecdoches for some large, recurring failure, but that’s what she means.

The other memorable conversation Cotard has at this stage is more fun. His daughter asks him what those things are on his face. Pustules, he says. They are caused by sychosis, which is different from psychosis. The little girl, clearly her father’s daughter in this respect, says: ‘You could have both, though.’ You could. He does. Or if he doesn’t have a psychosis he has something just as good – good for the film, that is. He knows what every character in a Charlie Kaufman movie knows, whether it’s Being John Malkovich, Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He knows that reality puts up scarcely any resistance to fear or fantasy, and that inside every head is a cast of thousands ready to misrepresent the owner.

This is essentially a comic idea – more precisely it’s a possibility of desolation that has immense comic mileage – and the film is very funny as well as very grim, often funniest when it’s grimmest. Sometimes it’s just grim and lingering, allowing Cotard to wallow in his not very interesting angst, as if Woody Allen had visited us with one of his earnest moments. You have to wonder whether there is a virus that makes witty American moviemakers want to be Ingmar Bergman at least once in their lives. This is it for Kaufman: Wild Raspberries.

But only some of the time; only when Kaufman’s ironies slow down into bare regret. And the restless cleverness of the film, which has bothered many viewers, is on the side of lightness in the end. When I said there was a replica of Manhattan in a warehouse in Manhattan, I was simplifying wildly. There is a replica of the warehouse in the warehouse, and perhaps another one inside that. Within the warehouses are rooms that simulate the real rooms in which the actual lives of characters are being lived. Outside the warehouses are New York streets full of litter and human debris, although of course you have to go through a simulation of those streets to get there, and even then you’re still only in a movie. When Cotard wants to know why an old girlfriend (Samantha Morton), now working as his assistant, fancies the actor playing Cotard, she says: ‘He reminds me of you.’ He says, although by this time he should know better: ‘I’m me. You don’t need someone to remind you of me.’

What has happened, it seems, is that Cotard, deprived of his wife and health and confidence, had been given a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award, which in his case appears to mean infinite amounts of money to do what you like with over an infinite amount of time. It may be that everything that follows from his getting the grant is a dream – it may be that his getting the award is a dream – but it scarcely matters, since this is a dream he never leaves, and we never see its outside. His grand plan is to make a play out of his whole life, and once he has rented or bought the warehouse in Manhattan, of course the warehouse is part of the play as well as the place where it will be performed. If it is performed. This play looks more and more like fragments from a film about a film that will never be finished. At one point an actor complains they have been rehearsing for 17 years: when are they going to work before an audience? Cotard says not yet. More time passes, and indeed time itself has started to stretch: there are weeks that feel like years, and years that literally turn into decades. Before Cotard dies he manages to become a very old man, surviving his wife and daughter and mistresses. His refrain is ‘I know how to do this play.’

All this keeps us guessing and helpfully puts over-solemn thought at risk. Cotard decides to give his actors brief notes each day, news of some calamity they are to react to in their next scene: death, desertion, disease, rape, bereavement. This follows much bogus talk about the unheard-of authenticity of the play he wants to mount, the deep, pure, powerful truth lurking inside all of us, the real story of real life. It’s like a delusional version of method acting, and it’s brilliantly punctured within the play by a character who says to her daughter: ‘Daddy can’t be with us right now, he’s finding his inner self.’ Kaufman has plenty of satirical lines in this vein. An actress trying to cheer Cotard up with a bit of profound intellectual comfort says: ‘Knowing that you don’t know is the first essential step to knowing.’ Cotard, not intending any kind of comment on the remark, perhaps not even hearing it, says: ‘I don’t know.’

The notes for the actors are sensationalist, of course, shreds of melodrama rather than echoes of daily living, but Cotard doesn’t see this – and perhaps we don’t see it fully – until Kaufman gives us a marvellous shot over Cotard’s shoulder as he sits at a table covered with these notes, beautifully, symmetrically arranged. No, not a table. Dozens of tables stacked tightly together, hundreds of notes, stretching out as far as the screen can see. It’s the sort of Bergman frame that might also have been devised by Orson Welles.

And when the cleverness and the desolation work together the results are magnificent. Cotard goes to Germany to see his daughter, who left England with her mother for a couple of weeks when she was four, and is now in her thirties and dying. She can no longer speak English, and communicates with Cotard from her bed by means of a simultaneous translation system. She needs him to beg her forgiveness for abandoning her, although he didn’t, and for various sexual offences which he hasn’t committed. In what is probably his finest moral moment – there aren’t a lot to choose from – the stricken Cotard admits to everything and asks the dying woman if she can forgive him. She weeps and says . . . she can’t, she just can’t. End of scene. He has confessed to a pack of lies in vain. Everything Kaufman does well is here: communication of a failure of communication, shifting levels of language and reality, a significant sadness that has the form of an intricate joke.

There are many remarkable small touches in the film too. When Cotard discovers his long-estranged wife has returned to New York, he goes to the address he has been given. It’s a non-existent number on an actual street: 1045 West 37th. The apartment is 31Y and the tenant from whom the wife is borrowing it is called Capgrass. Capgras syndrome is a condition in which you are convinced that your familiars have been replaced by look-alike impostors – or shall we say actors.