Anomalisa (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye) Running Time: 90 minutes approx.
Because this is a film aimed at adults starring stop motion puppets, I’m sure many people will immediately think Team America. This is an erroneous assumption to make, not in the least as it will leave them very disappointed to find an offbeat and occasionally maudlin existentialist dissertation instead of a ribald comedy.
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a customer service expert who has penned a book on the subject and is in Cincinnati to speak at a small business conference. Yet, in this world everyone Michael meets has the same male face – even the women and children – and the same male adult voice (courtesy of Tom Noonan).
After a boring night and a run-in with an angry ex-flame, Michael chances upon two women at the hotel who are attending the conference. One of them, the mousey and insecure Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) breaks the trend of looking and sounding like everyone else, giving Michael his first ray of hope in a long while, until his own insecurities begin to run amok.
Anomalisa is the creation of Charlie Kaufman, a writer and director whose work I am not personally familiar with. It began life as a stage play in 2005 featuring the same three performers from the film, but with the power being in the words, Kaufman was hesitant to adapt it into a film.
When stop motion animation director Duke Johnson entered the fray, a Kickstarter campaign was launched for a 40 minute short but the funds raised were enough for a 90-minute feature. The puppets used were created by 3D printer for that truly realistic facial effects, and filming, understandably, took over two years.
Despite its visual uniqueness this is still a character and dialogue driven fantasy drama, with the puppets able to expand on the stage play premise of all of Noonan’s characters being the same. The conceit of the story is how everything and everyone is part of a bland malaise of stimulation free existence for Michael, his encounters and escapades either unfulfilling or an awkward disaster.
Kaufman muddies the waters by casting Michael’s character in shades of grey, at least morally. He has a successful career, earns good money, has a wife and son, yet he is haunted by an ex-lover whom he left abruptly the last time they met. Then, when he meets Lisa and finds some form of salvation from his nightmare clone world, he again thinks nothing of his family.
But there is another angle to view this from since we only know Michael at this stage of his life. The reason for this bizarre world he lives in, or perhaps the bizarre view he has of the world, is a reason for his recklessness and we are joining him where he is suffering from a psychosis which is now so out of control, everything is the same to him, which in turn might be a symbolic implication from Kaufman.
The film’s title comes from the portmanteau nickname Michael gives Lisa for being an “anomaly” among this otherwise uniform looking populace, effectively hinting Lisa’s role is more than another sexual conquest for Michael. Oh yes, the two animated puppets get intimate in a scene that is both hypnotically accurate yet squirm inducing! I wonder how much fun Johnson had painstakingly filming this scene?
It is here that the story changes tact and with Lisa’s role now more defined we find our sympathies transferred to her, solidified by the film’s denouement. Yet the journey she undergoes remains secondary to Michael’s plight. I may have missed something as Curzon Artificial Eye failed to included hard of hearing subtitles on this release thus I was unable to catch all the dialogue, but the final act does suggest Michael is trapped within this illusion.
On the technical front, this film is astonishing to behold. The animation has all the hallmarks of the stop motion tradition but with far smoother movements, so everything looks photorealistic; in fact, there are times it seems more real then genuine human movements. The puppets are superbly authentic in their designs, the visible join across the front of the face adding an eerie quality, exploited during a nightmare sequence.
While the characters come in all shapes and sizes, Michael and Lisa naturally stand out not just because of their individual features but their relatable body shapes too. With her slightly scarred face, hidden by her long hair, dowdy appearance Lisa is the antithesis of glamorous while Michael has a middle-aged paunch, greying hair and average looks. Similarly effective is how the generic face of the others fits both genders.
Despite never seen David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan engage us magnificently through their voice acting – “acting” being wholly appropriate. They don’t just provide the voices for the puppets they become them, authenticating the whole experience. Thewlis is typically British, polite and reserved, Jason-Leigh captures the timorous nature of Lisa perfectly while Noonan maintains a steady, non-descript delivery throughout.
Much of the appeal of this film will be in the use of stop motion animation to explore the deep and metaphysical themes of Kaufman’s story and had I been able to hear the dialogue more clearly I may have appreciated and understood it more. But it becomes apparent around the half way mark that perhaps this should have been a 40-minute film, showing signs of flagging and padding.
As an experiment in combining themes and filming techniques and presentation styles not usually associated with one another, Anomalisa one which deserves the kudos it has received and has enough substance in the characterisations and writing to overcome any accusations of being a gimmick film.
Perhaps it didn’t have enough fuel to go the distance, necessitating a shorter route, but it’s a refreshingly bold and superbly constructed and presented viewing experience that warrants at least one watch by discerning film buffs.
2.0 Stereo LPCM
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Q&A With directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Behind The Scenes Photo Gallery
Rating – ***
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