Anomalisa

 

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It may be relatively early in the year but it is safe to predict that 2016 will bring us no other film as innovative and surprising as this one. Consequently, as with The Revenant, it calls for a more detailed review.

 

Not many screenwriters become household names but Charlie Kaufman is possessed of such original ideas that he made an impact even when other directors were filming his screenplays. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brought him to the attention of the public long before he went on to direct his own script for Synecdoche, New York in 2008. But, however extraordinary his concepts for those films were, his new piece Anomalisa co-directed by him and Duke Johnson is the one to make jaws drop.

Anomalisa is remarkable not just because of the writing but because of the technical concept in which it is rooted. It’s the story of twenty-four hours in the life of an Englishman, Michael Stone, who is in Cincinnati to give an address at a conference. He is promoting his company’s guidance to good salesmanship, this being a follow-up to his book “How May I Help You Help Them”. His career spells material success and he is married and a father but he is bored with life, that is to say with the dull existence epitomised by the swell of voices heard at the start with their meaningless babble. In the back of his mind Michael has not given up on the idea of his life being transformed by some encounter that will lead to rejuvenating love, but he is not expecting it. Nevertheless, it looks as though it is happening when in his hotel he meets Lisa who admires his book and is present for the conference at which he will be speaking next day.
 

Anomalisa

 

None of this sounds that extraordinary until you know that Anomalisa is an animated work which uses puppets to represent its characters but tells its story in entirely adult terms. The voicing of Michael and Lisa by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh is outstanding and Kaufman has supplied them with a great screenplay that fully brings them to life as real people. There is a deal of telling quiet humour (especially in the opening scenes dealing with Michael’s arrival) but, when Michael chooses to get together with Lisa rather than with her more obviously pretty friend, Emily, the film takes on depth. Kaufman portrays most tellingly the tentative approach that leads to sex between these two lonely and troubled people who really do need each other (the humour is not lost here but we feel for these two and many will identify with them).

To achieve this when we are viewing puppets is remarkable, but it will not stop puritanical audiences from reacting against the scene in which we observe the puppet figures actually having sex. Nevertheless, on this level, the film is a triumph. But, Kaufman being Kaufman, other extraordinary things are going on too. Ahead of seeing the film I had read that apart from Lisa the other voices heard by Michael Stone were in fact all supplied by a single voice: Tom Noonan speaks these lines and they retain a male sound even when the person is female. The film itself does not alert us to this at first so that initially one wonders if some transgender point is being made (when Michael early on looks up an old flame, Bella, we do indeed see a woman but Bella’s voice on the telephone preceding their reunion is male). It takes an old film clip on television viewed by Michael to establish beyond doubt that he (and we) are seeing females but hearing them speak with a male voice.

That Lisa speaks with her own female voice is, of course, what draws Michael to her, but how we are meant to read this is ambiguous. The speaking device adopted can be regarded as entirely symbolical: Michael is so jaded that everyone he encounters sounds the same and, just as every lover can see special qualities in the beloved, Lisa’s tones represent her uniqueness. This fits well enough with Lisa herself lacking self-confidence: she talks of feeling out of it and different, of being an anomaly indeed – that’s a word that she likes. Although an alternative is offered at the film’s close, the title is explained as being an amalgam of the word ‘anomaly’ and the name ‘Lisa’.

In its second half the film for a while moves effectively into nightmare mode, but this is linked to another thread present in the movie. Instead of the specialised use of voices being symbolical as I have suggested, it is equally possible that what Michael hears in his head represents a mental breakdown. There’s a rather forced climactic scene which fits with that, but it seems less original and less persuasive than the rest of the film.

Anomalisa won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice last year but, rather than acclaiming it a masterpiece, I feel that it is a truly memorable work in which rather too much is going on that needs to be deciphered by the audience. In other words one is aware of working overtime trying to decide exactly what Charlie Kaufman is playing at when we should be able to submerge ourselves in the world of his making. However, that element does not cancel the bond that we are made to feel with the central couple and that, together with the film’s technical accomplishment, is enough to make this a film that on no account should be missed. Indeed, when it comes to the standard credits at the close one realises that the phrase declaring that any similarity to living persons is accidental is gloriously inappropriate.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Voices of: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.

 

Dir Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, Pro Johnson, Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos and Rosa Tran, Screenplay (from his play) Kaufman, Ph Joe Passarelli, Pro Des John Joyce and Huy Vu, Ed Garret Elkins, Music Carter Burwell, Costumes Susan Donym, Animation Peggy Arel, Ludovic Berardo, Kim Blanchette and many others.

 

Paramount Animation/Starburns Industries-Curzon Artificial Eye.
90 mins. USA. 2015. Rel: 11 March 2015. Cert. 15.