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Directors: Charlie Kaufman & Dick Johnson
Release Date: September 4, 2015
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

A welcome new phenomenon of the 21th century was the arrival of live action directors turning to animation, and to stop motion, in particular. Wes Anderson was the first, directing the gritty ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009), while maintaining his idiosyncratic style. Next was Gore Verbinski, with the peculiar ‘Rango’ (2011), and in 2015 Charlie Kaufman followed with ‘Anomalisa’, which fits very well in his oeuvre. ‘Anomalisa’ is extra welcome, because this is an adult film, not a family film, which normally appears to be the only type of animated films allowed in the U.S.

Main protagonist of this film is British customer service expert Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who is invited to give a speech on customer service in Cincinati, Ohio. Michael seems to suffer from a disease, which could almost only dreamed up by Kaufman: to him all people look and sound the same, making it impossible to distinguish between them. All the people Michael encounters have the same plain face, and the same voice (provided by Tom Noonan). Children, women, men, film stars and even opera singers – they’re all utterly indistinguishable to him.

But then he hears a voice, different from all the others, and desperately tries to contact her. This voice belongs to one Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a telephone sales employee from a food company based in Akron, Ohio. Lisa is homely and insecure, especially when accompanied by her much more beautiful friend Emily (we viewers cannot judge that, however, as we see Emily only through Michael’s eyes, which means she has the same bland face and voice as all other characters in the film). Lisa thinks she’s ugly and stupid, thus she’s utterly puzzled by Michael’s interest in her, and not very convinced, either. But Michael’s so glad he’s found someone different that he even dreams of leaving his wife and son, to spend the rest of his life Lisa, whom he calls Anomalisa, as she’s the only one different in a sea of sameness.

It’s important to note that Michael Stone is far from a sympathetic character: he’s self-absorbed, evidently hardly interested in other people, and clearly bored to death with his current life. Even though he has a wife and son at his home in California, he tries to have sex as soon as he has arrived in Cincinnati. So one could argue that his disease is only symbolic of his disinterest in others, but Kaufman does play it as a real disease. For example, when waiting for his old flame Bella, he only acknowledges her after she has recognized him.

Nevertheless, it’s clearly Michael’s own negative attitude which eventually spoils his idyll… Next morning Lisa quickly loses her special charm to him, fading into the sameness of others at a breathtaking speed. The scene in which this takes place, is the most horrifying of the entire movie, despite a nightmare scene preceding it. Especially because at this point our sympathy has long since shifted to Lisa, instead of Michael, who remains, in the end, a pedantic, egotistical prick.

Unfortunately, this great scene is followed by one in which Michael finally delivers his speech. This is a very unconvincing, disappointing scene, by all means. It’s not only rather superfluous, it also stretches the plausibility too much, and almost spoils the entire movie.

Apart from a short prelude in which Michael arrives by plane, a short scene at a “toy store”, and a short postlude, which takes place at his own home, the entire film is set in a very common and extremely bland hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Michael is invited to give a speech on customer service. The hotel setting and short time span (the whole film takes place in less than 24 hours) gives the movie a unity of time and space, rarely encountered in current films. Indeed, the hotel’s bland browns and beiges color the film, adding to its visual character. Incidentally, the hotel is called ‘Fregoli’, after a disorder called the Fregoli delusion, in which the patient thinks several people are, in fact, one and the same person. Note that this Fregoli delusion is markedly different from Michael’s disease – he perceives people as different beings, but cannot distinguish them from each other.

The claustrophobia of the film is greatly enhanced by the stop motion, which always provides a sense of surrealism. Indeed, stop motion is such a logical choice for such an outlandish concept that one almost cannot believe the film is based on a stage play.

The film makes use of very lifelike sets and puppets. Nevertheless the puppets have different proportions than real people (the heads, hands and feet being larger than in real life), and have clearly visible seams at the eyes and ears, as the puppets have replaceable mouth parts. These seams give the puppets a rather uncanny edge. Kaufman even plays with this concept. At one point, Michael seems to be able to cut his own facial part loose, and in a nightmare scene it just drops to the floor, exposing the inner workings of his puppet self.

The realism of the puppets thus is mostly achieved through animation. Indeed, the animation of the puppets, directed by Duke Johnson, is of an extraordinarily high level. Highlight of the film is the sex scene, which in all its awkwardness and clumsiness is one of the most real sex scenes ever put to film, despite being acted out by puppets. The animators used reference from real sex actors for this scene, which took several months to shoot, and the result is a stunning tour-de-force of stop motion.

In all, ‘Anomalisa’ is a unique stop motion film. It’s admittedly not without its flaws, but Kaufman can proudly add it to his oeuvre of weird tales, and the film certainly is a welcome departure from the family film tropes of standard American studio animation.

Watch the trailer for ‘Anomalisa’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Anomalisa’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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