Venice Film Festival: Anomalisa

Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis, Tom Noonan

by Katharine Fry

Anomalisa is the latest offering from Charlie Kaufman’s idiosyncratic mind. Our protagonist is Michael Stone – a name whispered on many lips as he touches down in Cincinnati and checks into the Fregoli hotel. What manor of celebrity is this grey, portly yet shrunken man who appears withdrawn and irascible?

Michael, it turns out, is a motivational speaker and bestselling author of How May I Help You Help Them? And the trick it seems, remember that every customer is also a person, unique with a day, and a hope and an ache of their own, and company productivity increases 90%. But who is allowed to be unique in Kaufman’s incredible stop-motion animation? (And you’ve never seen puppets like this before, real, sad, flabby, world weary and wanking) The cast consists of just three actors – David Thewlis (Michael Stone), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lisa, a sales rep from Akron) and Tom Noonan (everyone else whether wife, former lover, hotel manager or sex shop worker).

The film unfolds for the most part in the claustrophobic environment of the hotel. Michael quickly moves from calling his wife and child to trying to reconnect with a lover he abandoned 11 years earlier. Neither of these options seem to satisfy him. Everything feels the same, everyone is the same – in line with the psychological Fregoli complex – until one voice rises above the others with all of its qualities of difference.

Cue Michael chasing through the hotel to track down the owner of this siren voice, the plain and gentle Lisa. What follows is the most beautiful and tender seduction scene known to puppetry, featuring a rendition of Cyndi Lauper that brought about rapturous spontaneous applause. It seems that once in a lifetime real love is finally at hand but Michael’s grey perspective dominates every scene and soon Lisa is just another of the same voices.

Originally a sound play with the same cast, Anomalisa deftly uses its puppets with identical faces and interchangeable bodies to play out the struggle for authenticity in a sea of mechanical people. At the press conference, many tried to find links between Kaufman’s turn to puppetry and what he might be trying to say about people. Is the use of the Fregoli complex a metaphor for self-involvement? Do the puppets’ removable faces speak to a rift between communicating with the mouth and following other instincts? To each prompt for insight, Kaufman only replies, “it’s a beautiful idea, it’s your experience, I’m not going to say anything.”

Strange, beautiful and moving.


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