WARNiNG: This post will contain spoilers for anyone who has not seen this film at least twice!
I have just watched Synecdoche New York at a cinema and it was absolutely thrilling. For the first time I fully appreciated the effect of the lights dimming when the picture started, then the lights coming up when the picture ended. The reason why is outlined in my previous post about this film, but that post is a jumbled unstructured mess so I will outline it here once more. The lights dimming indicates going to sleep, the picture appearing before your eyes is told like a dream with dream-logic and the lights coming up when the picture ends indicates waking up. I believe the best way to completely enjoy Synecdoche New York is in this way. Combined with the uncovering of this theory I am about to explain, overall the experience was more than overwhelming. I could have stood up and punched the nearest person in the face. It was also interesting to notice the scenes that made other people (watching it for the first time) laugh out loud. This was my third time so I laughed at a lot more scenes, but the comedy was more about how much I love watching this film. In the second viewing I hung on every word, while the third viewing I was able to look all around at other details while still gripping on dialog, making even more sense of the film.
I also discovered an amazing feeling of paradox. The ending of the film was so climactic, because to explain it properly you have to explain the entire movie, scene by scene, as it finally builds up to this amazing conclusion. But the conclusion is played out so subtly, so gently and softly. The context is HUGE but the scene is so small. It's the same paradox as the theater production itself getting bigger and bigger, but smaller at the same time. There might be more paradoxes in the film that I haven't noticed, so I will have to look out for them in further viewings.
My theory will be explained in two parts, the context of the ending (**SPOILERS!!**), setting up the scene and also the beyond the 4th wall meaning of it all. Or perhaps, going beyond the 4th wall is also another context, hidden from view.
I will mainly center the context around the character of Ellen, the cleaning lady. I think she is a very important clue to the story. Caden Cotard goes on a search for his first wife, Adele (who is a painter), and when he's at her apartment he is mistaken for the cleaning lady "Ellen", but he assumes the role of Ellen anyway because it allows him to be inside his first-wife's apartment.
While seeing one of Adele's exhibitions he finds a portrait of Ellen. Where this portrait came from is a complete mystery, but my thinking of its origin is in my "beyond the 4th wall" theory that I will explain later. I haven't yet analyzed the film entirely scene by scene, perhaps there is a little detail I overlooked. I notice there was a scene of Ellen's dream on a television commercial much earlier in the film, but I don't think that has anything to do with the origin of the portrait. There is also the "dream logic" that crops up in the film but I like to think there's more to it, but I'll get into that later.
So, in the real world, Caden Cotard assumed the role of Ellen. In Cotard's play, he decides to recreate the scene where he assumes the role of Ellen, except use Ellen as an actual character based off this mysterious portrait. Then we get to a point where Hazel, the assistant and love-affair of Caden, dies and Caden decides to base the play on the final day before she dies. He needs a new actor to play himself (not including the actor who was playing the original actor (who comited suicide earlier) who plays himself), so in an amazing twist the actress playing Ellen convinces Caden that she can play him. After a successful rehearsal of the new version of the play (an overly dramatic version of a play within a play) Caden Cotard feels he has exhausted his creativity. The actress playing Cotard suggests she should take over the actual directing while he rests, and that he could fill the role of Ellen (in the play).
So here's the context: The actress who was playing Ellen is now playing Caden Cotard, but because Caden Cotard is now playing Ellen, the actress is playing Cotard playing Ellen BUT also directing the play at the same time. It's something that can be thought of in a single moment but will take forever to explain because your words will keep going around in circles. But when you understand it completely, you can then entirely take in the subtle, soft ending as an overwhelming climax.
But where did the portrait come from?
2. NO 4TH WALL
The easiest part to understand about Synecdoche New York is when Caden Cotard is making a play where actors are playing actors, then actors are playing the actors playing actors, and so on. But here's where my theory is: what if, from the beginning, we have been watching actors playing characters and not the actual characters themselves? Put it this way: we are watching a film by Caden Cotard, and we are not watching Caden Cotard on the screen, but we are watching Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Caden Cotard on the screen!
This could have been the original intention of Charlie Kaufman the whole time, that there is this world beyond the 4th wall that the actual events on the screen are merely imitating, taking artifacts from and playing them in the film. Not that it's based off Charlie Kaufman's own life, although maybe it is, I wouldn't know. We don't see what's behind the 4th wall, we are just seeing what's being reflected from it (perhaps represented by seeing Caden through his reflection in the mirror in the opening scene?).
A theory shouldn't be without evidence, so here are a couple moments that I think are essential clues:
Firstly when we see Caden directing the young actor in "Death of a Salesman". He gives him advice to acknowledge the fact that the audience knows that he is a young actor playing an older character who will meet his demise, and feel the tragedy of it. I find this a suitable allegory to the whole film if you take my theory into practice. Most of the actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener etc) are younger than the characters they play in the film, and we know they all meet their demise, if we're already acquainted with the story that is.
Secondly when we are watching the rehearsal of Ellen outside Adele's apartment in the play, Caden hears the voice of Adele (on a tape-loop) and attempts to open the door to the apartment himself. The actress playing Ellen says "You're breaking the 4th wall!". My thoughts are too scrambled to put this into words, but I think it's a very important clue.
As for the mysterious portrait of Ellen, well that may just be an artifact from the existence behind the 4th wall that somehow creeped its way into the 3-wall story. And if that's the case, then my hat goes off to Charlie Kaufman for blowing my mind harder than double-barreled shotgun ever could, and I don't even wear a hat!!
One more thing to mention about this film. I have read some scathing reviews about it and it mainly concerned how uncomfortable it is to watch at some points. For me it's when Caden gets his head split open at the beginning, but other than that I am absolutely enthralled and spellbound by this film. I think I could watch it a hundred times and never get sick of it. It makes it even harder to watch it analytically because I get so easily drawn into the story. I think it has something to do with the music (notice how many times Charlie Kaufman's name appears in the song-writing credits), as if the music plays the film and not the other way around like we usually perceive. I think this film is crafted to the finest detail, even everything we barely see out-of-focus in the background. Everything. Synecdoche New York could possibly be my number 1 film of all time, surpassing 2001: A Space Odyssey. I love this film and that's the brutal truth. Brutal.