HERE’S A STORY where – like the best of cinema – the idea and the style of its execution are so wedded together that you can’t imagine one without the other. Charlie Kauffman (Synedoche, New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Eternal Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovitch etc) has always delivered deeply philosophical movies that slam us into his wild, weird imagination.
In Anomalisa, using a style of puppetry that’s both hyper-real and clearly ‘false’ (we see the hinge points in the faces), and with one core voice (that of Tom Noolan’s) as the voice of all the characters, male and female, but for the two central protagonists, the movie makes us feel that we’re being led through a story entirely from within the consciousness of the lead character, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewiis).
And David’s consciousness is… fucked, to put it politely. He is a totally demotivated motivational speaker newly arrived in Cincinnati to give a speech on motivating better service. Go figure. We get a perspective of his emotional state from the very beginning when he’s in the aircraft en route to Cincinnati. He glances through the window to the turbulent clouds outside and notices another aircraft, just like the one he’s in, flying alongside. One minute it’s there; the next minute it’s gone. Perhaps this is David himself…physically present, but emotionally, spiritually gone, like the vanishing aircraft.
We follow David’s progress almost in real time as he arrives, engages in banal chit chat with a taxi driver (“check out the chilli” he tells him) and checks in to a typical, faceless, soulless hotel. (It’s called the Fregoli Hotel…which is actually the name of the disease David’s suffering from in which people all merge into the same person). He has a perfunctory phone call with his wife and son, from whom he clearly feels estranged, and then, having gotten over that, he calls up an old girlfriend, Bella (who he’d unceremoniously dumped eleven years ago). They meet in the hotel bar. She’s confused, concerned about the added pounds she put on, depressed, seeking out some sort of explanation for their peremptory separation, not sure why he called her up etc. All as you’d expect from a meeting of this sort. But her voice and the voice of the waiter bringing the drinks is the same voice. It’s as if to David, everyone has become the same person. Even meaningless conversations between different people are repeated verbatim (he is urged to try the chilli by multiple persons).
His world has been reduced to a simple binary state: David and non-David; ‘me’ and ‘non-me’.
But they are also all, like him, faceless puppets (and at one point in a dream, his own face, his prepared mask, falls off, revealing the inner core of a frozen grin/grimace.). To him, and despite their past, Bella’s not anyone special; just another inhabitant in his world of interchangeable beings. No wonder, he doesn’t seem to be able to compute her emotional trauma…if all people are the same, all emotions must be the same as well… all equally meaningless, equally irrelevant. Only the physical intimacy of sex (which really is all he’s looking for) can, possibly lift him out of his funk, his extended breakdown.
And then, in search of a voice that he hears outside his room (it’s a different voice…the potential of meeting someone ‘real’) as he bangs on the doors of the hotel’s endless nightmare corridor, he meets Lisa. She’s a star struck fan, sharing a room with her more glam friend. Lisa is (to him) shy, retiring, with about zero self esteem and mortally embarrassed by a scar on her face, which she hides with a cascade of hair. Her attempts to hide her scar/face attract her to him. Here’s someone who has a ‘real’ face. She also – literally – has her own voice (that of Jennifer Jason Leigh).
She’s an anomaly. Hence the title.
Lisa introduces a new dimension to the troubled consciousness of our ‘hero’. To the world of ‘me’ and ‘non-me’ now comes ‘her’.
It’s love at first sight…someone who, if only fleetingly, gets him away from himself (which may be all that love is). He peels her away from her friend and they make love. And that’s pretty weird: not people making love, but people-esque puppets making love. But sex is not the desired, romantic route that can transform his perspective. When it comes down to it, it’s just sex. And the morning after, what seemed like an anomaly, an existential liberation from sameness, is revealed to be nothing more than the icky intimacy of someone with scrambled egg in her mouth as she talks.
This is Kauffman’s continued genre of what might be called intimate dystopia: a perspective not of a future world in collapse, but of a present when the human consciousness is reduced to emptiness… to the triteness of empty jingles and lives lived by the dictates of how-to books.
And the fact that it’s all told through puppetry makes it weirdly watchable, because every gesture and unconscious tic become flashes of keen observation…we become that much more aware of the characters physical presence even as we’re slumming it in their mental world. Far from distracting the viewer, the use of animation/puppetry both enhances and changes how we ‘read’ the story and engage with the ideas at play.
It’s extraordinary, and quite brilliant.
And much praise must also be paid to Duke Johnson (a specialist in stop motion animation who shares directorial credits) and his specialist cinematographer Joe Passarelli for this very special treat of a movie