Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman). It doesn’t matter how big a Kaufman devotee you are, how many times you’ve seen Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It doesn’t matter what you’ve read or heard about Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut, because nothing could possibly prepare you for the overwhelming mindfuckery on display. It is easily Kaufman’s most ambitious project, which means that it is easily one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen. The role of the artist in society; coming to terms with death, God and fate; and the importance of escaping from the trap of solipsism in order to connect with others are among the most prominent themes, but they are far from the only ones. The sheer depth and complexity of the ideas Kaufman is out to explore here is mind-boggling.
Obviously, Synecdoche, New York is not an easy film, or a clean one. The first twenty minutes or so are relatively straight-forward, all things considered, as they detail the day-to-day life of a theatre director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Adele (Catherine Keener). When Caden’s health begins to deteriorate in strange and grotesque ways (the possibilities of these sicknesses being all in his head or being meant as a literalization of his fear of death seem quite likely), Adele takes his daughter to Berlin for a week-long trip. They never come home, and as the film becomes increasingly focused on Caden’s mental state, things like temporal and narrative cohesion start to feel like a distant memory.
Caden receives a MacArthur genius grant and sets out to perform an epic theatre piece in a huge space designed as a model of Schenectady, New York. The idea is to reproduce real life as theatre, and as Caden’s life begins to influence his production, the lines between reality and fiction grow increasingly blurred. It becomes difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction, waking life and dreams. Characters collapse in on themselves and become other characters, they quit the play and they die, and all the while Caden stands behind the scenes as a self-absorbed God, until he too is consumed by his own project.
In its narrative structure, Synecdoche, New York is somewhat simpler than but similar to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Like Lynch’s brilliant fever-dream, Kaufman’s film seems destined for heavily mixed reviews. Many will hate it. Those who love it will do so fully, passionately. Several days ago, I myself was unsure of my own reaction to the film, except to say that it was the most radical and, for lack of a better word, “essential” of all the films I saw at the Cannes Film Festival. Neither of those descriptors is a value judgment, however, and I now feel comfortable proclaiming it a work of messy genius and great artistic scope. I still need to see the film again as many times as possible, but right now, with the hustle and bustle of the festival behind me, I think it’s some sort of masterpiece.
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino). Sorrentino first made his mark on the festival scene with The Family Friend, a film I have not seen but have seen described as an eager-to-please dog, with nearly every shot framed in as showy a manner as possible. Il Divo continues this visual strategy, taking the story of famed Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, who was recently tried for his alleged Mafia connections, and telling it through incredibly flashy storytelling techniques. Most viewers and publications have praised Sorrentino for his “fresh” take on biopic material, but to my eyes, Il Divo is little more than the Italian version of Smokin’ Aces. Sorrentino is clearly a talented director, but it would be nice if his sensibility would evolve beyond that of a snotty sixteen year-old, over-impressed at his own snarky take on an important political subject.
What makes it worse is that Il Divo, with its ceaseless stream of names and information, begins to drag after only about 20 minutes. Beyond a comically long pre-credits sequence that explains important terms and political groups to the audience, the screenplay makes no effort to make anything that’s happening onscreen of interest to non-Italian viewers. Matters aren’t helped any by lead actor Toni Servillo, who has been directed to play his character by staring blankly into space and reciting all of his lines in the same disinterested monotone. I guess it’s supposed to be funny, but I just found it dull and irritating.
Palermo Shooting (Wim Wenders). Palermo Shooting is the kind of bad movie that could only have made it into the festival on the basis of its director’s name, which is weird when you consider that Wenders has done practically nothing of note since Wings of Desire back in 1987. It’s even weirder when you consider the film. Palermo Shooting is one of the biggest train-wrecks I’ve ever seen projected in a theater. It’s slow, pretentious and mind-blowingly stupid. I suppose it could be considered entertaining, but only for the jaw-dropping disbelief it provokes as each new bad idea is soon topped by an even more hilariously awful one. To give you some idea of the level of Cannes fiasco we’re dealing with here, I would rather watch Southland Tales for the rest of my life than have to sit through Palermo Shooting one more time.
The reason is simple: as impossible as it sounds, Palermo Shooting makes Southland Tales look smart. As idiotic as each and every one of Richard Kelly’s ideas was, at least they were mostly original. Palermo Shooting is, at its heart, the single most self-important carpe diem movie ever made, treating its proclamations that life is precious and that death is not something to be feared but instead an unavoidable part of life as if no one had ever thought of them before. These ideas are explored by the story of a photographer (Campino) who escapes dying in a car crash only to have Death (Dennis Hopper, sporting a bow-and-arrow and a ridiculous gray cloak) start hunting him down. The battle is fought through hilariously overwrought dream sequences and turgid voice-over, climaxing in a showdown in Death’s library that is quite possibly the single most ill-conceived and badly-written scene I’ve ever seen in a film.
Since the Festival decided to end the Competition screenings with its worst film (I’m convinced that even Serbis, which I walked out of, is the much more interesting work), that does it for me at Cannes. It was a great but exhausting experience, and I want to thank Matt and Keith for giving me the chance to share it with you. Also, thanks to all the readers and commentators who followed me on this journey. As an aspiring film writer, I feel like a dwarf among giants, a no-name sharing print with some of the finest writers on the web. I hope I held my own okay, and if not, oh well. At least I had fun.
Once more, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you.
Matt Noller lives and studies film and journalism in Athens, Georgia. You can also read him at Uh, movies.