The painstaking process behind Charlie Kaufman’s new co-authored meditation on love and relationships probably at times seemed to the filmmaker like a minor recurrence of the depiction of creativity in his first full directorial outing: the arduous and taxing Synecdoche, New York. But where the realisation of Caden Cotard’s vision in that movie became a torturous exercise in convolution, this shorter film accomplishes the exact opposite feat – it makes the hard-won, the meticulous and the boundary-pushing look incredibly natural.
Anomalisa, even as a completed undertaking, potentially registers as an important addition to stop motion cinema, not to mention as a flagship work for the potentially game-changing trend of Kickstarter-funded filmmaking (which has yet to really see a major and all-round successful movie through to completion). It tells the story of Michael Stone, a depressed motivational speaker visiting Cincinnati for a conference, who, on arriving in a city which also happens to be the living place of a former lover (the embittered Bella Amarosi), begins to consider the unraveling of his interior life up to this point, mainly through the lens of a succession of failed relationships.
The disconnected Stone – brought to life by a brilliant David Thewlis in full, testy Lancastrian voice – is irate and world-weary, finding himself assailed by the mundane and the spirit-crushing at almost every corner in the movie. Surrounded by identical crash-test dummy lookalikes, masquerading as human beings, Stone passes along an experiential conveyor belt from one impersonal encounter to the next. There’s a sense of everything Michael comes into contact with – from the hackneyed conversations he shares with fellow travellers to the music he listens to privately (“it’s Lakmé!” he insists) – being co-opted by the language of marketing and global corporations in one way or another, an impression corroborated by his brash taxi driver when he quickly corrects Stone on his MP3 song selection: “nah, it’s definitely British Airways!”. Even the film’s opening shot, of nothing more than an airplane and clouds, seems to be somehow filtered through his nicotine-stained and dulled colour palette.
Checking in at the astutely–named Fregoli Hotel (or, “the Fré – Johlie”, according to the establishment’s irritatingly cheerful receptionist), Stone’s loneliness and his despair become even more deep-seated and apparent. One immediate feature of his stay which compounds his state of mind is that every voice Stone hears also appears to be the same, specifically that of an incessant droning mid-American male supplied throughout by Tom Noonan. The Fregoli Hotel, with its beige décor, its hard edges, and alienating corporate coldness is an apt locus to kick-start Stone’s introspection. For one thing, the visible materialness of the hotel set, like the protagonists’ claymation puppet masks, acts as a constant meta-fictional reminder of the medium we’re watching, as well as a stand-in for the constraining facticity of Stone’s life which informs all the ground covered by the movie. It’s also where nine-tenths of the film’s action takes places, lending at certain moments an intimate, at others a claustrophobic and invasive, atmosphere to this chamber drama come existential love story, bulwarked all the while by the film’s three excellent voice performances.
All this repetition and psychic pain – “What is it to be human? What is it to ache?” Stone almost soliloquises during his workplace efficiency talk – would probably be unbearable to watch, if Anomalisa weren’t so funny. What’s more, the animation is so smooth and fluid (co-director Duke Johnson deserves as much credit for this as Kaufman does for the narrative aspects of the film) that it can be easy to forget what you’re watching here isn’t much more than puppets and cardboard-box sets. The attention to detail is just that impressive (so much so that the film’s central sex scene took over six months to shoot), and this extends well beyond the animation into its nimble sense of wit and observational humour (keep your eye out for recurring gags and character names in the movie).
After an ill-conceived meeting with ex Bella, Stone hears what he thinks is a new voice in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa of the film’s portmanteau title. Lisa is shy and self-deprecating, the scar on her right cheek a physical representation of emotional damage and an all-too-clear fragility she wears from the get-go. It’s very hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about Lisa, in a film that’s constantly undermining the idea of individuality or specialness, but an undeniable bond between herself and Michael begins to develop and play out: “your voice…it’s like magic!” Stone exclaims giddily at one point in his hotel room. It’s not that this ‘anomaly’ girl has any new light to really shed on Michael’s situation, or even an eloquent way in which to say it – the corny clichés and banalities the two share are in many ways of a piece with those shared by all the other characters in Anomalisa. But, at the same time, the connection is palpably there: it just works. In a way mirroring the film’s understated score – which at times is little more than muzak, or background noise, but which builds steadily and peaks at just the right moments – a quiet, uplifting power is at work during these scenes and almost catches you off guard by the time the film reaches its climax.
A pretty unsavoury aspect of the picture that’s spurred a considerable amount of viewer discussion online, but which hasn’t really been dealt with by many film critics, is the predatory nature of Michael’s relationship with Lisa. Lisa, too, comes to Cincinnati (along with her more extrovert friend, Emily) to see and hear Michael speak; she’s bought and read his book; and she’s only ever seen occupying a timid and subservient role within the relationship struck up between the two. In many ways, she’s the perfect, idealised projection of Stone’s bruised ego at this point in his life, trapped as he is inside a labyrinthine building named the Fregoli that’s full of obsequious employees and people who somehow know or even love Michael. Subsequently, you’re prompted to ask if Lisa – or the illusion of Lisa – exists at all outside of Stone’s imagination. She’s the wronged woman to an unmoored middle-age man who spends much of the film casting about for meaning and searching in vain for someone to help him feel part of the world again. But this consideration still does little to get away from the disturbingly sinister, preying dimension to their relationship; nor does it justify Lisa’s apparent function as a screen and a vehicle for Michael’s recovery process.
For this reason mainly, Mark Kermode is one among a number of critics who feels this new movie doesn’t quite “hold together”. But their line of argument overlooks the triumphs of a deeply human film which are found, principally, in its animation and in a rediscovered breathing space that allows Kaufman’s comic talents to flourish. In this light, Anomalisa constitutes a more than slight shift in direction for Kaufman – would it have even been possible to get any more heavy-going than Synecdoche? – and is all the better for it.
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