Double Feature: A Duchess in Synecdoche, New York.

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An unexpected double feature last night. I rarely have either the money or the ambition to see two films theatrically in one go, but the planets were aligned (literally apparently), and here I am. Unusually, my expectations were not only wrong, but my opinions rather polarizing. Let’s start with the “bad”, as I rarely have much enthousiasm for films that simply don’t interest me. I could probably write an essay on why I don’t care to write about what doesn’t interest me, but frankly, it doesn’t interest me.

The biggest disappointment of the year, this side of Blindness, Synecdoche, New York has an unfortunately strong script that seems to be muddled by poor filmmaking. I’m not entirely sure this is the case though, as from the get-go I failed to be engaged or initiated into the world of this particular artist. I cannot find a concrete reason for this, and my self-reasonings about weak establishment of mood and motivations seem easy, if not innacurate. In part, it might be my lack of belief in the artists presented. I’m never convinced of either their need to create, or the struggle that ensues. It becomes readily appear the film is about the artist, and the artistic process…. almost how art and life are tied at the hip, and a failed artist, fails at living. Too much self-awareness, too much ambition, too much… of everything, but perhaps that is the secret itself, that art is never singular, never beginning and never ending, it is as continuous as life, but unlike our frail humanity is not necessarily limited by death. Now while these are interesting questions to ponder, and are almost beautifully laid out in Kaufman’s writing, somehow put to the screen they lack all spark, and all passion. If ever a film was absent of life, it is this. An interesting stylistic choice? A man who is dead, in a film that is dead? It doesn’t make compelling cinema. I may not go to the movies to be entertained, but I do wish to be engaged on some level. I want a conversation with art. This was a one-sided monologue, and there came a point where I just had to shut off my brain and think of better things.

On the brighter side of the spectrum, is the unexpectedly passionate and liberating film, The Duchess. I have almost been naturally drawn to films about women, even the bottom of the barrel stuff as far as cinema goes like Sex and the City. With The Duchess I expected a sort of light period piece a la The Other Boleyn Girl, but was pleasantly surprised to find a harsh criticism of both the popular arts. I’m sure many might see my analysis as reading too much into a film, seeing something that doesn’t exist, as there is not very much self-awareness as to the film’s place in the world of art. More than likely, they are right… but it doesn’t diminish the impact or the care and tenderness that the film exihibits.

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The Duchess strikes me as the anti-thesis to the costume drama, or period piece. Enivitably focused on the male perspective of history, as they were the ones permitted to do so, women even through the eyes of the post-feminist era, are objectified for the sake of the male story. Now, I’m not suggesting that we should abandon the great tales of male success or politicize stories that do not warrant it, but considering that women make up 51% of the world population, at an even greater women to men ratio in first world nations, I do think there should be a fair share of both worlds of experience. I don’t want more female action stars, like Lara Croft, which is rarely anything more than male wish fulfillment, but rather an appreciation for both the struggles and lives of women. The Duchess is a beautiful example of a film that subverts the norm, creating in Duchess of Devonshire a character who is admired and held up for her behavior as an equal human being, rather than an over-masculine man-woman.

Through the trials of her character, we are given a very sincere image of a time of great inequality and hypocrisy. Women are allowed even less freedom than slaves, as one politician attempts to stop the trade slaving, without even considering that a woman should even be allowed to vote. That particular comparison seems harsh, as slavery is a “worse” crime than the inability to vote, but the servitude a wife must undergo for her husband is no different than that of a slave for a master. Even the logic remains the same, as once racist slave owners would insist that it was for the better of these people because they were not as bright and unable to fend for themselves, to have someone to take care of them, do the husbands and men justify their treatment of women. In a very early scene, the Duke of Devonshire observes that women’s clothing is far too complex, and with a surprising answer the Duchess replies it’s their sole means of expression. It’s clear he doesn’t understand, or even register her meaning.. which makes what follows all the more uncomfortable.

It’s the same complaint I hear leveled at a film like Marie Antoinette or even Cleo 5 a 7, where people justify that the perceived “shallow” nature of the female protagonists is enough reason for them to be uncaring for their plights or supposed suffering. Though we are in a far more enlightened age, we have to remember that women have thousands of years of subservience to overcome. This cannot and will not happen overnight, and we are stuck with archaic ideas of gender roles, that are rooted in a history of women only being able to survive by gaining a rich husband, and as the film suggests, even that comes with a heavy price. Early feminists argued this point heavily, that women are forced upon by society to think solely of their appearance and personality as a means of survival. If we do not allow them to be educated, and because they aren’t educated do not allow them to be free, they will do what they can to survive. Bess Forster takes this to extremes that even the Duchess has a difficult time rationalizing or even sympathizing with as her husband has taken away her children and will not allow her to see them. She acts by betraying her friend, as an act of survival. In most other period pieces, an act of betrayal becomes incredibly complex and almost instantly forgivable.

The film has some pretty rudimentary ways of showing distance between husband and wife, but they are no less successful. The film, on a whole, is restrained and though emotional, never veers into melodrama. The film, though pointingly obvious in it’s criticism of patriarchal values, features on a whole very sympathetic men. Even the husband is allowed a great deal of humanity, in spite of his cruelty and a horrific act of violence. The cinematography is quite beautiful, almost an expectation one gets from a period piece, but there is a sort of calmness one doesn’t usually get from such an unseasoned filmmaker. He is not afraid to hold a shot of a face or a hallway, to let silence dominate, and the viewer have time to fully appreciate the thoughts and emotions of each of the characters. The ending is hit or miss, trying to evoke a similar end as The New World, fails stylistically, though I appreciate them ending on a sort of wimper, instead of a grandiose display of emotion or action.
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12 responses to “Double Feature: A Duchess in Synecdoche, New York.

  1. I like your review of Synecdoche. Right after I saw it, I was ready to declare it the best film of the year. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how emotionally empty it was. All spark and no fire, so to speak. Still a tremendously interesting film that all fans of art cinema should seek out.

  2. every single review or written-down thoughts I’ve seen about Synecdoche, New York has been an unbelievably wordy, philosophically-oriented word salad, from Roger Ebert’s bizarre review that’s more like a sermon to everyone on TLC, and even someone who DOESN’T like it like you delving head-first into its philosophical aspects. Man, like it or hate it, it really seems like a thought-provoker like no other 😆 I might have to look into this, even though I have no interest whatsoever 😕 . Problem is, I have no idea what to expect from this movie ‘cuz every opinion I’ve read about it talks about those heady philosophical concepts and doesn’t tell me a damn thing about, ya know, what it’s about, how the performances are, production value…everything you’d expect from a traditional movie review. This really must be something special, for good or bad to have this kind of effect. Intriguing 😛

  3. Michael: I’m happy you at least enjoyed it, because it is FAR from the top of my list. I didn’t really get anything from it.

    Simon: I guess more people should see it, but I wouldn’t watch it again :p For worse, there isn’t really much to talk about beyond the philosophy. Perhaps that was the intention, but that’s not very interesting to me. Essentially an artist has a sort of crisis, his fear of death leads him to create the greatest work of his career, which is both overambitious and never-ending. Is that satisfying for a plot ceremony? The actors are good I guess, rather vacant. The Production values are high, but I don’t think the presentatioln is particularly skillful. Certainly not weak, but not strong enough for the material.

  4. charlie kaufman’s just given me weird vibes of late. the concept of this movie just seems so…over-the-top, so…metaphorical?…that it just looks too lofty and hell, just too weird, for its own good. i’ll skip this one, catch Benjamin Button instead 😛

  5. I agree with Michael that Synecdoche, NY was emotionally empty, but perhaps that’s why I like it. However, the second time I did care less about the movie than I did watching it for the first time. But so far it has been the best movie of the year for me, although Roman de Gare is perhaps a close second.

    I am avoiding The Duchess like the plague, so I’ll have to beg to differ on your opinion for these two films. However, looking forward to more reviews, as I’m sure we can find common ground on another film! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  6. Simon: Why not see both? :p I see too many movies, until Friday, I’ve actually managed to see everything I’m interested in theatres. I guess I could check out a few still playing, but I wouldn’t be upset if I missed them.

    Allison: I want to see Roman de Gare!!!!!

    I don’t think you’ll like it, so maybe it’s better you avoid it. Yes! Common ground would be good.

  7. I found Synecdoche to be quite moving (different things move different people, I guess) and the performances of the ensemble to be consistently amazing – Hoffman and Samantha Morton obviously (as much passion there as any filmic relationship I’ve seen this year) but also Tom Noonan, Diane Wiest …

  8. I’ll chime in on the side of those that love this film. I don’t necessarily disagree with your statements, but it left me kinda stunned. I’ve let it percolate in my brain since then and I like it more and more as I look all the different ways it can be considered.

    Also I don’t think I’ve come across a film that has created so many interesting negative reviews (including yours). I like the fact that at the very least it has made a lot of people really stop and consider their feelings about it.

  9. C. Jerry: thank you for being an advocate, as much as I didn’t like it, I don’t want to discourage people from seeing it… though I don’t think I’ve made a good case for why they should anyway.

    Bob Turnbull: It did make me think a little more than I usually do when putting together thoughts, I realyl had to reflect on what I wanted to say and how I was going to say it.

  10. I saw the film and was totally taken by the story of this person who has a strong mind, very smart and political. Her personality is squashed by society of the day and her husband. Film stars aside, this is an historical gem that highlights the role of women at that time.

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