Here’s a thing about being caught unawares by movies: It doesn’t happen all that often. Obviously. If most movies were surprising, then we wouldn’t be surprised when they are. But most movies are not surprising. Most movies tell same-old stories in same-old ways. But to not know what you’re looking at or why what you’re looking at is being presented to you in such an extraordinary way? To not know where this can possibly go? When that happens, it reminds you why you fell in love with the movies in the first place, and how infrequently that love is genuinely engaged.
The story that Anomalisa tells is, in fact, at its core, pretty same-old. (It’s a male midlife crisis thing, which is, for some reason that is downright mysterious, a theme that intellectual middle-aged male filmmakers return to again and again.) The way it tells that story, however, turns it into an astonishing, even perception-altering experience. It could infect the way you see the real world in a way that is hard to shake. It represents a startling use of animation to tell a story that no live-action film could tell… or at least not a live-action film that wasn’t so heavily CGI’d that it became more animated than live anyway.
This is the second feature film from Charlie Kaufman as director (after Synecdoche, New York), who wrote such mind-bending movies as Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, so if you’re expecting anything at all, it might be something fantastical. Yet the first noteworthy thing about Anomalisa is the maximal mundanity in what it’s showing us. We follow Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis: Regression, Legend) as he arrives on a commercial passenger flight into Cincinnati, complete with the usual scripted welcome announcement from the captain. There’s nary a step of Michael’s journey that is omitted. He rides the moving sidewalk at the airport while fiddling with his iPod. He grabs a taxi and engages in small talk with the driver. He checks into his hotel; we are there as he hands over his credit card to the desk clerk “for incidentals.” He rides the elevator with the bellhop — more small talk — then fumbles through that awkward moment when the bellhop pretends to be surprised that he’s being offered a tip even though he was clearly waiting around for one. Michael takes a piss; orders room service; ambles down the hall to the ice machine. He does some routine things that impart to us that he is here on business, and that his business is customer service, which may be the most uninteresting business to be in. And this is all animated, using miniature stop-motion puppets… yet it’s as realistic as this sort of animation can get. Bodies are not stylized. Environments are recognizable: Michael’s hotel room, in which much of the story occurs, is a perfect example of the sort of personality-free “style” we’re all familiar with in hotels; ditto the other primary location, the hotel bar. It’s as if Kaufman — who codirected with Duke Johnson — is challenging us to really notice Michael’s world, in which every banal detail, of the physical domain and of human interaction, has been replicated with the sort of loving care that only an animated movie would do. If nothing else, Anomalisa is a veritable triumph of cinematic appreciation for the ordinary sort of ordinary that is actively designed to be both ordinary and unnoticed.
(Anomalisa is also a direct challenge to the notion that so many people seem to hold, that animated movies are only for children. This one contains tons of bad language, realistic puppet nudity, and a fairly graphic scene in which realistically human puppets engage in one of the most authentically awkward sex scenes ever committed to film. This movie is most emphatically not for kids.)
It’s all so ordinary that you almost don’t realize this at first, and it eventually strikes you not with a smack of awareness but with a tiny nudge of doubt: Is this really what I’ve been seeing and hearing? Surely, it’s my imagination? But it isn’t: Every other person in this world has the same face. Hairstyles and clothing are different, of course, but everyone looks the same. And do they all have the same voice? Men and women alike? They do! (Tom Noonan [Synecdoche, New York, Seraphim Falls] does all the other voices.) It isn’t only this hotel that is beige and boring: it is Michael’s whole world… or, at least, his experience of the world. Is he depressed? Is he tired? Is he mentally ill? (There is a thing called Fregoli syndrome, which according to Wikipedia is “the delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who is in disguise.” But despite an allusion to that here — the hotel is called the Fregoli, and in fact Kaufman wrote the radio play this is based on under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli — that’s plainly not what is going on with Michael. He knows these are all different people. They just don’t register with him as people, not as real people, or at least not different from one another in any meaningful way.)
But then the flatness of Michael’s existence is shattered when he hears a different voice, and when he finds her, the woman it belongs to has a different face. It turns out that Lisa Hesselman (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh: The Hateful Eight, Welcome to Me) is staying at the hotel with a work friend, and they are both there to hear Michael’s speech about customer service the next day. And they are in awe of him: he’s like a rock star to them. Michael has no interest in the friend: she has the same face and voice as everyone else. So it’s not merely the hero worship that intrigues him. “Your voice is like magic,” he tells Lisa, even when she is talking about the most humdrum of things, which is all she has to talk about: to us, she doesn’t appear very clever or funny or interesting.
So is Anomalisa’s striking visual and auditory take on Michael’s perspective on the world a metaphor for attraction? I think we all know the experience of someone standing out as special to you even though others wonder what you see in them. Or: “You’re the only other person in the world!” Michael tells Lisa at one point, so maybe this is an embodiment of that delusion we all find ourselves wallowing in sometimes, that only I am real and everyone else is somehow fake, a puppet, not really alive? (Or is that just me?) Is Michael just craving novelty in his dull life and will take it wherever he can find it? Is this a parable of how desperate alone every single one of us is, no matter how surrounded by other people we are?
The true marvel of Anomalisa is that it is open to many interpretations, all of them valid. For me, I found that the sympathy for Michael the film engendered for me early on got tossed out later, and I found ultimately him to be a terrible man, though still in a way that was interesting as a character study. I suspect everyone who sees this film will have a different reaction to Michael’s plight and where his connection with Lisa takes him. And that may be the most extraordinary thing about Anomalisa, that it doesn’t feel the need to take you by the hand to a foregone conclusion, but leaves it up to you.
first viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival