“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”

― Lloyd Alexander

Life can only contain so many fleeting moments before it all comes to an end. A brutal fact that everyone must accept at some point I suppose. Few films demonstrate a perspective of life filled with such existential melancholy as found with Synecdoche, New York. This entry into Charlie Kaufman’s collection of philosophical films (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Anomalisa) unravels the tale of Caden Cotard a theater director portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as he attempts to create a play that encompasses an authentic portrayal of all life has to offer. While the entire film is of Caden’s perspective it’s natural to consider him the main protagonist, but he might be far from the film’s most important character.

I’ve read and watched many great analysis and interpretations on Synecdoche especially the ongoing series by Adam from YMS but one significant factor that still seems to allude most is a solid answer towards this question “who is Ellen?”. Ellen has a complex introduction to the story both being here own character but also being a secondary identify for Caden who throughout is often mistaken for being Ellen. While many have interpreted her to be some manifestation or extension of his personality; however, what would seem outlandish for any other film I have a different hypothesis. What if Caden is a fictional character, not one created by Kaufman but by Ellen? Absurd, maybe; but what if the evidence is there.

Preface: This theory is less about the truth but rather trying to accumulate enough to sufficiently construct another way to engage with the film. We’ll be discussing minute details of a dense film. I’d highly encourage you watch give it a watch before carrying onward.

The Theory: The world of Synecdoche, New York is conjured up by Ellen, a lonely depressed cleaning lady who hopes to finally escape her insignificance by writing a play that unabashedly carries an authentic depiction of grim reality. In attempts to deeper the raw realism of the play, she progressively blurs the lines between her fiction and reality and that of creator versus creation.


To say that Sammy Barnathan is a method actor still feels like an understatement. Sammy is portrayed through the first half of the film stalking in the background appearing in numerous scenes in an ominous fashion. However, it is not until Sammy auditions to play Caden do we begin to get to know him. Sammy of course gets the part not because of his acting ability but his ability to understand Caden; after 20 years of observing him it has given him almost omnipotent foresight into Caden’s mind.

As the actor portraying Caden, Sammy like many actors becomes synonymous with the character he’s portraying. As much as a character is much a product of their creator, the actor which portrays that character consumes that identity. As much as J.K. Rowling and George Lucas put aspects of themselves into Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker those characters’ identities have merged with that of Daniel Radcliff and Mark Hamill respectively. It’s rather odd that Sammy barely alters his appearance to play Caden and while it’s subtle It appears that Caden is equally mimicking Sammy in mannerisms and appearances. This point is more clearly demonstrated when Millicent/Ellen takes over the role of Caden and Caden again sports a new hairstyle to match her.

Sammy tries to attempt to grasp the character that is Caden by attempting to voyeuristically enter his life as a method actor would, hence stalking him. Sammy can read Caden’s thoughts because he is a part of Caden as an actor can be the driving force of a character. However, in Sammy’s efforts to understand the pain and sadness that Ellen wishes to capture with Caden does he commit suicide unable to handle the unrequited love that anguishes Caden.

I didn’t jump, Sammy! A man stopped me before I jumped! Get up! I didn’t jump.

Caden lashes out in anger over Sammy’s suicide because of Ellen’s failure to see anyone else besides herself. While she’s written Caden a Deus Ex Machina to save him from death the actor who has shared in Caden’s emotional turmoil couldn’t be saved. Ellen is offended that her personal emotional weight that she rested on Sammy’s shoulders caused him to end it all which stares her back in the mirror. How could someone this miserable carry on living?


Caden’s daughter is an essential piece to understanding Caden and by extension Ellen as a person. In this theory I’ve struggled to concretely establish the exact fate of Ellen’s real daughter. However, the film has led me to believe that Ellen’s daughter died in childhood or never existed. Time had alluded here, and she reached old age never having birthed a child.

In Millicent’s monologue does she proclaim what it is she desired in life and opens about that longing she’s missed out on:

“There was supposed to be something else. I was supposed to have something… Children. A child at least.

It’s quite possible that Ellen had always wanted to be a mother, of all the relationships explored in the films, the one between a parent and child is quite possible the most significant. Ellen with her monologue is finally peeling back the layers of deception and is going into her inspirations and muses for her writings. Her miserable marriage is what inspired Adele and her memory of the picnic with her mother inspired her to conjure up here own daughter. We see her begin to weep as she gazes outside the window. The movie already demonstrated the importance of windows when Caden insists that they construct a wall between him and Claire when they recreate Claire’s departure from the play. Ellen can only stare outwards at her desires but there exists a barrier preventing her from obtaining it.

The great writing advice to “write about what you know” or that each story grows from the author’s own experiences it would make sense that Caden’s journey is metaphoric for grieving her lost child. When Caden attends his father’s funeral, the casket is peculiarly noteworthy in how small it is. Surely, not large enough to fit his father… it goes unexplained unless you consider Ellen is writing this story with references to her own experiences. Caden’s father’s funeral is modeled after her own experiences going to funerals and in that instance the casket was small, child-sized. Olive also references her own death by stating:

Now I have to die… I have to and you’ll have to wait a million years to see me again and I’ll be put in a box

Caden throughout the movie can’t see his daughter as she grows older and more damaged as demonstrated by her increasing tattoo count. Ironic the one time he sees his daughter, where else would she be but in a glass box as he is unable to communicate with her. However, given that Caden is Ellen’s fiction she writes what she never could get and that is to make peace with her daughter on her death bed. Ellen’s perspective is so poisoned with despair that she won’t make this moment satisfying one. Instead this scene is the pinnacle of guilt and it turns into Caden being forced to confess his homosexual relationship with Eric. While this confession seems to be FAKE NEWS it’s important to recognize that an Eric actually does appear in this story in a blink and you’ll miss it moment.


Eric is introduced when he appears in Millicent’s monologue as who else but her husband. The confession that Caden gives Olive is not Caden but Ellen confessing. The confession is Ellen having to admit that she loved Eric, she was in love with someone who fostered her feelings of inadequacy and caused her to live a life of regret. Ellen is always portrayed as the true identity with residue proving such. Caden is addressed numerous times as Ellen when picking up the phone or by people mistaking him for her. Adele’s portrait for Caden is a painting of Ellen. Eric appears in a kitchen vaguely similar to the one at the beginning of the film and all that really is elaborated with him is that he appears emotionally distant and Ellen insists that he hates her. Given this small scene is the hidden truth underneath all the layers of deception does it become clear where all of Ellen’s bitterness has been fostered from.


To see Caden as a fictional manifestation of anxiety and self-loathing would make sense of the film’s rather dreamscape settings and logic without having to resort to the done to death purgatory claim. The way time and dates spring forward rapidly in the films opening to Caden’s ability to construct a micro-universe within a warehouse. In Caden’s relationships with the women throughout the film have less to do with Ellen harboring lesbian feelings but more that she’s writing them for what they represent. (Though one of the posted notes that Caden gives Claire could suggest otherwise). Instead these women represent three drastically different relationships: Adele an un-supportive and destructive one, Hazel a relationship built on a soulful connection and compassion and Claire who represents a relationship built on admiration and appreciations for one’s efforts. The film does a remarkable job at emphasizing the weaknesses of all these relationships models and how everyone becomes disappointing the more you get to know them.

Caden abides by rules of fantasy and is often misidentified as being Ellen in situations where he is clearly not. Caden suffers from multiple forms of miscommunication; Caden is for all intents and purposes greatly misunderstood. Not just in conversation but when Millicent describes Caden she proves that she understands Caden more than anyone else.

“Caden Cotard is a man already dead, living in a half-world between stasis and antistasis. Time is concentrated and chronology confused for him. Up until recently he has strived valiantly to make sense of his situation, but now he has turned to stone”

YMS already brought up in his analysis of how wardrobe plays a symbolic meaning in that with gray demonstrates death and vibrant colors and floral patterns being death. Millicent wears both in this scene proving that she understands the complexity of Caden the fact that he is mentally alive but spiritually and emotionally dead. Even the producers who sits next to Caden is confused by her reveal claiming that he doesn’t see it within the script. This could be a peer into Ellen breaking the illusion showing an example of her real struggle to convince producers that she is necessary to capture this sentiment with the character as she states an “unusual casting choice” and just like Caden this real life experience has worked its way into the art.

So, what exactly makes Caden the creation, how exactly do we know that he is the fiction and not vice-versa. I think two scenes solidify the legitimacy of this theory, the second I will get into in the next section about Millicent/Ellen, but this comes from mid-way through the film. After attempting and failing to meet his daughter, Caden ends up in some dump and he finds the bright pink “nose” box that he had gifted Olive earlier in the film. An emotional moment where Caden sees a sentimental gift among meaningless rubbish, he himself at his lowest. No one would blame him if he were to breakdown and cry, but he doesn’t and what he does next is rather odd. Instead Caden pulls out eye drops to work as tear substitutes as he drops them into his eyes to give the illusion of tears. This tiny detail points at a major premise, Caden is sort of a performance. Caden is artificial and cannot generate enough genuine emotion to be moved to tears. No matter how genuine a fictional character feels, they are still performing unlike the very real tears that are shed by Millicent when she shares with Caden her regret for not achieving more in life.


To be clear while the character is technically Millicent who’s hired to portray the never seen Ellen it is clearly supposed to be Ellen herself as evident by the end credits that has oddly enough has Dianne Wiest credited as both Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems. Despite almost every actor playing some sort of “other” character this is the only one that’s given credit and the only example of a character credited without being directly shown.

In the film’s conclusion, the layers of deception referenced in the “Song For Caden” as Ellen gives Caden an earpiece so that she can direct his final moments becoming an almost voice of God or inner monologue. With this she flat out reveals to Caden:

“Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this”

Not only does she not ever say you are Caden, but instead emphasizes with a dramatic pause that “you are Ellen”. Not only that but she implies that he’s inherited her traits. To truly be the authentic depiction that Ellen wanted to create, Caden must represent Ellen in mind, body, and soul. Caden even notices during this what appears to be another version of him laying dead on the table. A possible reference to a discarded draft of Caden seen earlier in the film cementing his transformation throughout the creative process.

In the end, at a brittle old age Ellen writes a conclusion that she wants to give herself. Of all the characters for Caden to run into at the end, it seems like a completely bizarre choice to have it be the actress that played Ellen’s mother. She has no real significance to Caden, but to Ellen who during her tearful monologue made it apparently clear how guilty she felt towards her unkempt promise to her mother. Watch this scene and tell me it is not the dialogue for a mother comforting her daughter on death’s door. Caden even shares he has Ellen’s remorse; he states how he always wanted to do that picnic with his daughter and fears that he disappointed her. After all the pervasive sadness, all the anguish, and depression all Ellen wanted was the type of comfort that only a mother could supply.

So with the final seconds is Caden cut off with a chilling declaration by Ellen who just says “die”. I think under the current stream of theorizing this could mean two different ending depending on how optimistic you want to be. The first is that Ellen has reached death herself and with it nobody’s work is ever finished. However, it could just be more about the death of an idea than the author behind it. Caden ends receiving another epiphany on how he should do the play, Caden was an artistic emotional outlet for Ellen and by projecting her negative emotions onto them was she able to purge them. Ellen has ultimately come to the conclusion that Caden has served his purpose and therefore his story is no longer necessary. In order for her to begin a new story, she must end Caden’s; Every time one door opens another close or how this film phrases it the end is tied into the beginning. Caden has said this statement before, usually before some sort of revision or new direction to take his play but at this point it genuinely feels as though having been aligned closer to Ellen is their little he can do to become more of her. Instead, Ellen has finally recognized that perfection is futile and through her comforting mother scene realized that she can let go and explore a different aspect of herself through another character leaving Caden in the gray of non-existence.


I could literally talk all day about each detail of this film the layered craftsmanship in all the ways it comes together makes it truly a special film. I’ve appreciated how tight-lipped Charlie Kaufman has been with this film encouraging others to find their own interpretation. I don’t want this to be me imposing this theory that I’m not quite sure I even believe was the intent of the film on you guys. I thought this was an interesting way to look at an underappreciated film that hopefully can implore you guys to give this one a watch or re-watch to come to your own conclusion on its validity. Despite it causing me to somewhat spiral into an existential crisis listening to the soundtrack writing this up but I’d love to continue to encourage conversation or interpretations of this film. Below I will be linking to some other great breakdowns or interpretations and please feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments. Thank you for listening to what this little person had to say, I appreciate your time, unfortunately this mark another fleeting moment that must come to an end.

Images and clips are from Synecdoche, New York [credit: Sony Pictures]

Synecdoche New York but done better:

YMS – The Genius of Synecdoche, New York

Film Radar – Synecdoche, New York – Looking Through Caden’s Eyes

Happy Hour – An Interpretation of Synecdoche, New York

A Mind for Madness – Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

11 thoughts on “Could This Actually Be True? The Secret Behind Synecdoche, New York

  1. I’m sorry, I really like your piece, it is a really interesting approach and very insightful, but the part about the eyedrops is not quite right. It is not the case that he can’t cry because he is emtionally dull, you can clearly see that he is experiencing emotions. It is because early on in the movie a doctor diagnosed him with a disease that disabled him to form any kind of fluid. That is why he can’t cry, and also why in another part of the movie, I think when he is on a date with Hazel, he can’t properly swallow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, thank you I’m glad you find it to be of some intrigue and insight. I for one appreciate comments that can expand the conversation to anyone new who stumbles upon this can read and get a better picture. It’s impressive how vividly this movie has stuck with me because I do remember you being right, Caden is diagnosed with such a rare disease.

      I would say in my defense that it’s more an omitting of all the facts then necessarily being wrong. I believe there’s certainly more authorial intent or metaphoric language at play then Caden simply having a condition. I mean the green light from The Great Gatsby still means something even if it’s just explained in universe as a lamp post.

      “emotionally dull” does seem a bit like a mis-characterization and if that’s the impression I gave then it could have been articulated better. Caden definitely does display emotions, but there’s a degree of genuineness and vulnerability that comes with crying and regardless of the explanation the film makes the point clear that he simply can’t do it. I didn’t talk much about the diagnosis but it is a fascinating aspect of this film. It’s strange how Caden acts as a hypochondriac yet is almost unfazed by having a severe medical condition. I think these scenes go beyond demonstrating Caden’s infliction and express his emotional damage, lacking the ability to articulate and express himself in various ways.

      I’m thankful for your comment and the chance to discuss this film again. It’s a highly interpretive film so I don’t think there’s one way to look at it so to some degree to each their own I guess.


  2. This review is making a lot of sense. All the gender confusion about Caden – wether it be calling him “Ellen” or noticing the smell of menstrual blood … makes so much sense after reading this article. I always thought, what a strange tragedy of a closeted homosexual, that even becomes a woman, only because of his denial. Like as in the more you resist, the more it persists. I never quite understood the misery that has been put into this and especially the role of Ellen, as a gender-role-play blurring reality and fiction. It really did blur my mind. And it is genius deception.
    Caden being a morphological character of Ellen’s experiences, is the best possible way to make an understanding of why “Caden” is so nervous about “his” relationships towards women. Ellen is a directress in rural Schenectady, New York, trying to live a meaningful life.

    Given the idea, that Caden is actually Ellen right away. Is pure genius. It makes sense that Ellen is jealous of Maria, the flirt of Adele, which later unites with Maria to live in Berlin and become a famous artist. It makes sense, that Ellen is nervous about the flirtatious approaches made by Hazel who’s lesbian too or bisexual (I like weird, I like you), because she takes any chance to make a living (Derek). It makes sense, that Ellen is so insecure about relationships and sexuality. Ellen suddenly wants to fuck Claire – a true impulse – after being nervous and awkward about this relationship in the booth for example (meeting Hazel and Derek in the bar).

    Ellen is insecure about her own identity, departing from a heterosexual relationship, being in love with Eric and having a daughter. Eric who might be a repressed homosexual too, since he is having a child with a gay woman while saying utterly pointless things (everything is everything). So even if this sounds like Caden, the role of Caden, is just a made-up-vehicle of all the experiences of Ellen life. A mashup between herself and her husband. A repressed homosexual having a daughter with another repressed homosexual, still trying to make meaning in her life.

    Caden-Ellen has a daughter named Olive, maybe with Eric, who is a repressed homosexual asshole (given the reference of The Winky) on the Countryside and with whom she is having anal sex. Also, she is in love with him, maybe because they share the same emotional pain. Eventually, Caden-Ellen left him, took her daughter Olive into new life with experimental relationships. They all did not quite work out, beautifully enough, they all care for each other. Ellen still comes around Adeles apartment to clean and get things right. Because thats what it’s all about: love and care. Even when they’re separated. Caden-Ellen still gets to stay in contact with her ex’s — with the very lesbian Adele for example who is married to her gay friends in Berlin. Or Hazel, who seems to be a bisexual loner. Or Claire, who is the only one daring to speak up during Caden-Ellens first rehearsal for the magnum opus, when everyone else remains silent while Caden-Ellens existential meltdown. They all fill a gap for each other and this is the beauty in this utterly dark maze of love and confusion.

    ***After all, is Olive really the child of Ellen and Eric?

    It kind of makes sense. The fact that Olive eventually starts to pursue her own goals, getting tattooed and becoming an icon of freedom and liberty, makes absolute sense. It is reversed trauma. Knowing that both her parents are repressed homosexuals, she might have thought she shouldn’t exist. And rather than killing herself, like for real or only mentally, like her parents did, she takes life at its hairy balls, turns into a hotrod of a human being herself, showing her mother what life is all about. Having fun and make meaningful relationships. She leaves for an adult that can show her something in life. So Adele replaces her mother, as a better version of it. And Caden, is just a morphological vehicle for all that misery. Diseases, paranoia, dissatisfaction, it goes on.

    Living a fast life, she makes up for that resignation. She projects her mothers shortcomings into herself. Therefore she lived life at the fullest with no regrets. All only because her parents made one mistake in life. Her. And she cannot forget. Thus, she cannot forgive her mother when she dies herself. (women sometimes become like their mothers, as much as men sometimes become like their fathers)

    After all, Sammy could actually be s reference to real life Eric who is stalking his ex-wife. Decrypting this screenplay probably starts at the end. So 100 out 123 minutes are fiction. Until the secret director introduces herself to the set, by giving herself a role to play Caden. Until then everything is fiction. The only thing that is true, is Ellen. And from there you go backwards to the start of the film. Genius.

    Just think about Caden being the fictional character of a closeted gay woman that was always ever looking for the approval of her own mother. A woman that tried so hard to satisfy what she had promised to her mother when she seemed already aware of her desires… the way she speaks out her promise, simply wanting to do the same thing as her mother…. it is pure tragedy. She can only fail. The fact that Caden needs to die like all the other Caden’s before is only proof for her repressive nature. In the moment when Caden gets a clue what this is all about, when Caden gets a clue of how to get this play right — a lesbian in denial trying to make a meaningful life — he has to die. This is how cruel it gets. Even when others, are ready to jump in and make her feel better. She denies. Even when she causes a heartbreak of a man falling in love with her fiancé Hazel, causing him to jump himself to death in return… even when she sparks hope in the hearts of others and she only has to say yes to another woman … even then, she can’t get over it. All these levels of deception in the movie is the level on which Ellen is denying her self.

    Man, this is cinema and this is the cinema we all need and this is the level of cinema that I was expecting when friends recommended me this movie. Now this movie has become – to me – a fucking amazing contribution to society through performing art on an extraordinary level. This is pure emotion and pure meaning and the pure abysses and highs all the poets were talking about and all the ups and downs a human being can live through. It is drama. And it is beautiful. It tells us something about life.

    This being said, this is the best review I’ve ever read and it makes so happy and sad at the same time. All the references make sense, every little detail makes sense, every word, every slur and every denial MAKES SENSE. Cause Ellen is offended so quickly (Adele saying Holy Fuck), only because she made a promise that she never should have made. I am mind-blown. Thank you for writing down your thoughts and sharing it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really appreciate your deep and insightful perspective on this movie! Wow, I would have never figured that out on my own, thank you.
    Here is what I am most curious about: the blonde psychologist that Caden visits – why does she read his thoughts in her book? Why does she suddenly show up seated next to him on the plane? She even asks Caden a very interesting question, “Why did you kill yourself?” – what is that supposed to mean? And why do her books end up littered everywhere at the end of the film?
    There is something about this psychologist character that sticks out to me. She carries significance, but I just can’t quite put my finger on it. What are your thoughts on her?
    Thanks again for making me think so deeply 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I am so glad to hear you enjoyed. It makes my day. Yeah the psychologist is a very prominent character that I know I didn’t discuss. It has been a while since I’ve seen the film but I kind of got the sense that she in a lot of ways was a window into reality. Always calling Caden/Ellen back into their self-doubt or natural desire for guidance.

      No problem, and if you are looking to dive into this film if didn’t link it somewhere in the review I can not recommend Adam/YMS analysis series on this film. He dissects a lot of the film and breaks down a lot of the themes and small nuances that makes it truly a marvelous film to think about. Unfortunately doesn’t cover the whole film, but does go over a lot of different things.

      Thank you, you’re comment was nice to see and I very much appreciate it.


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