Finally! An Instant Cannes Classic

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Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York

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As with 8-1/2 and other challenging films of its time, Synecdoche seems to pose cosmic questions about itself. Are we being shown Caden's imagination or projection of the rest of his life? Is the film fantasy or dread, or is it real? The answer, of course, is that it's a movie, which needs only to create an alternate world, populate it with memorable characters, and be true to its internal logic, however skewed. Kaufman has constructed a most devious puzzle, a labyrinth of an endangered mind. Yet it's one that — thanks in large part to a superb cast, led by Hoffman's unsparing, sympathetic, towering performance — should delight viewers who both work the movie out and surrender to its spell. (If they ever get to see it, that is. At the moment the film has no U.S. distributor.)

One big difference between Synecdoche, on one hand, and, on the other, 8-1/2 and other films, like It's a Wonderful Life, where the hero teeters on the precipice of suicide, is that Kaufman's movie doesn't send in the clowns, or dispatch a bumbling angel, But the movie is less forgiving of Caden than 8-1/2 is of Guido. Kaufman says that life is a series of lost chances, of doors closing, until some unseen prompter whispers a final word in your ear: "Die." The apparent bleakness of the film's ending — which is the ending we all must face — led many Cannes observers to infer that Kaufman's mood was no less morose than Caden's. "At times," wrote a reviewer in the Times of London, "it feels more like a suicide note than a movie." (That wouldn't be a first for Kaufman. His 2005 audio play "Hope Leaves the Theater" ends with the character Charlie Kaufman committing suicide.)

Well, au contraire, mes amis, everybody. For one thing, this is a comedy about despair, as funny as it is bleak, and a complexly woven study of an unraveling soul. Kaufman didn't live (and die) this story, he made it up; and then he directed it, supervising a community of actors and artisans that must have numbered in the hundreds. More important, though, is the effect it should have on a receptive audience. No film with an ambition this large, and achievement this impressive, can be anything but exhilarating. Coming on the next-to-last day of a mostly glum festival, Synecdoche, New York is like a surprise happy ending. This is a deus ex machina — a miracle movie.

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