Synecdoche, New York  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
existential film

Synecdoche, New York is a 2008 American film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. It premiered in competition at the 61st Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2008 and went into limited theatrical release in the US on October 24, 2008.

The film marks the directorial debut of Kaufman, who is known for his screenplays for the reality-bending films Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation..



Theater director Caden Cotard finds his life unraveling. Suffering from numerous physical ailments and growing increasingly alienated from his wife, Adele, he hits bottom when Adele leaves him for a new life in Berlin, taking their daughter, Olive, with her.

Shortly afterward, Caden unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship, giving him the financial means to pursue his artistic interests. He is determined to use it to create an artistic piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can pour his whole self. Gathering an ensemble cast into an enormous warehouse in Manhattan's theater district, he directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives. As the mockup inside the warehouse grows increasingly mimetic of the city outside, Caden continues to look for solutions to his personal crises. He is traumatized as he discovers Adele has become a celebrated painter in Berlin and Olive is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele's friend, Maria. After a disastrous fling with the woman who mans the box office, Hazel, he marries Claire, an actress in his cast. Their relationship ultimately fails, however, and he continues his awkward relationship with Hazel, who is by now married with children. Meanwhile, an unknown condition is systematically shutting down his autonomic functions one by one.

As the years rapidly pass, the continually expanding warehouse is isolated from the deterioration of the city outside. Caden buries himself ever deeper into his magnum opus, blurring the line between the world of the play and that of reality by populating the cast and crew with doppelgängers. For instance, Sammy Barnathan is cast in the role of Caden in the play after Sammy reveals that he has been obsessively following Caden for 20 years, while Sammy's lookalike is cast as Sammy. Sammy's own interest in Hazel sparks a revival of Caden's relationship with her.

As he pushes the limits of his relationships personally and professionally, Caden lets an actress take over his role as director and takes on her previous role as Ellen, Adele's cleaning lady. He lives out his days in the model of Adele's apartment under the replacement director's instruction during which some unexplained (and likely in-universe) calamity occurs in the warehouse leaving ruins and bodies in its wake. Finally he prepares for death as he rests his head on the shoulder of an actress who had previously played Ellen's mother, seemingly the only person left alive in the warehouse. As the scene fades to gray, Caden says that now he has an idea for how to do the play, when the director's voice in his ear gives him his final cue: "Die."


Miniature paintings and the impossible warehouse

Both Caden and Adele are artists, and the scale on which both of them work becomes increasingly relevant to the story as the film progresses. Adele works on an extremely small scale, while Caden works on an impossibly large scale, constructing a full-size replica of New York City in a warehouse, and eventually a warehouse within that warehouse, and so on, continuing in this impossible cycle. Adele's name is almost a mondegreen for "a delicate art" (Adele Lack Cotard). Commenting on the scale of the paintings, Kaufman said, "In [Adele's] studio at the beginning of the movie you can see some small but regular-sized paintings that you could see without a magnifying glass ... By the time [Caden] goes to the gallery to look at her work, which is many years later, you can't see them at all." He continued, "As a dream image it appeals to me. Her work is in a way much more effective than Caden's work. Caden's goal in his attempt to do his sprawling theater piece is to impress Adele because he feels so lacking next to her in terms of his work," and added, "Caden's work is so literal. The only way he can reflect reality in his mind is by imitating it full-size .... It's a dream image but he's not interacting with it successfully."

See also

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