Charlie Kaufman and Duke Jones’ Anomalisa is a deep, witty and moving portrait of alienation filmed in stop-motion animation. It’s quite unlike anything else shown at Venice, or anywhere else for that matter, but if it helps: imagine Aardman Animation doing a Philip K. Dick adaptation. “What is it to be human?” asks Michael Stone (David Thewlis at his most drawling and grumpy), a famous motivational speaker in the midst of an existential crisis. “What is it to ache?” He is visiting Cincinnati for a speaking engagement, but he struggles with every interaction. He’s tersely polite but barely able to keep the irritation out of his voice when dealing with his friendly taxi driver – “Go to the zoo: it’s zoo-sized”.
In Stone’s world, everyone speaks with the same voice. Tom Noonan’s voice to be precise, who is credited as ‘The Rest of the World’ in the end titles. The taxi driver, the hotel receptionist, his wife and even his son, all talk in Noonan’s clipped, neat, emotionally neutral voice, as if Stone’s own absence of effect has been projected onto the world. Although based on a rare monothematic delusion called the Fregoli Syndrome. the film never explains the condition, preferring to immerse us in Stone’s reality as simply reality. Stone himself, whose very name (“I am a rock, I am an island”) bespeaks an inability to emotionally engage, is at the end of his tether: he drinks too much and is thrashing around for a let up to the monotony of his existence. He hesitantly phones an old flame Donna (Noonan) who he hasn’t spoken to for ten years, but the date goes predictably wrong, as Stone is hasty and insensitive, barely listening to her before trying to usher her upstairs. Returning to his room via a detour to a sex toy shop – he wanted to buy a present for his son and failed to look in the shop window – Stone is about to retire when he miraculously hears another voice.
Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is staying at the hotel with her friend Emma (Noonan), with whom she is going to attend the following day’s conference. They’re fans of Stones’ work – “Yay for your book!” – and are easily persuaded to go to a bar with him. They quickly become chums, but Stone is drawn to the usually neglected Lisa because of her voice and they retire to his room. The beginning of a tentative love affair is played out in real time. It’s beautifully written, shy, delicate and touching and, it’s at this stage that the animation really comes into its own. There is a tenderness to every action, as well as awkwardness, both the comedy and poetry of people having sex for the first time.
There is such an unusual literalness, a reawakening and brushing off of the old clichés of falling in love. For Stone, Lisa is unique, unlike anybody else in his world. He loves the sound of her voice and is utterly uncaring about her “defects” – she thinks she’s overweight, is shy of oral sex and has a large scar on the side of her face. Stone is so in love with her voice that he’s in teary-eyed raptures as she sings her favourite Cyndi Lauper song. He wants to run away with her but can such rapture last? Is such happiness possible? Originally written as a theatre piece for voices and a Foley artist, the decision to film Kaufman’s first movie in eight years – his last, the under-appreciated Synecdoche, New York (2008) – in stop-motion was a stroke of genius. In Duke Johnson he’s found a collaborator perfectly able to translate his universe into something like reality. Being such a labour intensive technique, there is usually a strict economy to stop-motion in the same way there is a different film grammar for animation than for live action, making the most of its strengths and limiting its failings.
Fortunately, Jones ignores all of that and the film is directed as a live-action film. Small gestures, shifts in posture, subtle facial expressions, close ups etc. are meticulously reproduced. This isn’t just about photo-realism – other than Stone and Lisa everyone else has a dummy-like sameness. Rather, there is a naturalism to the ‘performances’ and yet we are still watching an uncanny other, a puppet of sorts, a mannequin with a clearly visible join. At one point, as Stone becomes increasingly unhinged, he unhinges. There are elements of 2003’s Lost in Translation here – the mid-life crisis of a celebrity, the minor irritations and the dislocation of a hotel stay – but Kaufman’s screenplay is endlessly inventive and original. There are so many jokes to be enjoyed, but his turn of phrase is pitch perfect and Jones’ animation matches Kaufman’s fastidious eye to observed ‘reality’. Anomalisa might be bizarre, surreal and far out, but it always feels paradoxically real, grounded and deeply true.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.