You are a puppet, a manipulated figure whose face consists of two fitted pieces. The join (or the fracture) is located at the top of your eyes. You become aware of it occasionally, sometimes when you observe yourself in the mirror. This division allows you to separate your eyes and your brain from the rest of your head. “The eyes are part of the brain”, it was affirmed in Synecdoche, New York. What would happen if, one day, you decided to raise this shell?
Charlie Kaufman places this question at the end of the first third of his adventure in stop motion, Anomalisa – an enigma about identity that will stay interrupted, open, probably because it is a question of metaphysics that surely, as human beings, we will never be able to solve; and neither will these anthropomorphic puppets. As the main character, Michael Stone’s wife will ask him: “Who is anybody?”
Recently researchers from the universities of Virginia and Harvard did a study where approximately two hundred people of varying ages and origins took part. The participants had to remain alone in an empty room for between six and fifteen minutes .Simple. The resulting conclusions would highlight the extraordinary rejection that people feel whilst remaining alone with their thoughts. Some participants preferred to self inflict small electrical charges to pass the time.
After Synecdoche, New York, this is the second full-length film Kaufman has directed, this time co-directed with Duke Johnson. It works as an existentialist fable, which sheds light on the evils of alienation, boredom and contemporary inertia and their effect on the individual, the fact of feeling indistinguishable from the masses and not a driver of your own, particular identity. Michael Stone is a guy bored of himself, his job, his circles, his family. In spite of all this, he is also a mentor in the area of Customer Care, about which he has written a book, Allow me to help you to help yourself, and on which he is to speak at a conference. The night before the presentation Stone is alone in front of a mirror in his hotel room, alone with the a forementioned fracture – an abyss he assumes to be so big that he escapes running into the hotel corridor, throwing himself desperately into the path of another, Lisa.
Even though the presence of this strange facial division is an element that distances us from these puppets, or androids, the emotional inconsistencies before us generate an instantaneous and deep empathy. These inconsistencies contribute particularly to the construction of both main characters, the singular Michael and the singular Lisa, and the script moves fluidly between the a forementioned existential gravity and an absurd humour that, combined, conjure the misery, the greatness and the erratic nature of human relationships.
Our process of identification is activated from situations that, in general, turn out to be tremendously familiar: a fellow passenger speaking gibberish during a flight; the impersonal sense of several public and private places, from an airport to the hotel; the dizziness of loneliness and boredom; the unexpected spark of love at first sight; a moving sex scene and the disappointment after the fall of the romantic veil. The film’s direction creates a tension between both extremes in which we move as social beings: between the need to build a self and an individual identity, to stand out from the masses, and the need to link ourselves effectively with a special other (or others). The movie works very consciously with vocal elements to provide a diffuse homogeneity: with the exception of the two leads (David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh), every character is voiced by just one actor (Tom Noonan).
Anomalisa is surely Kaufman’s most accessible, polished and less baroque script. But it shares themes not only with his directorial debut, but also his earlier films as scriptwriter (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Adaptation). We are again faced with the danger of depersonalization that usually affects his characters (alter egos, perhaps?), who are unstable and vulnerable, often confused between reality, the subconscious and fiction, often shielded behind a suffering ego-centrism, in conflict with their surroundings. Also present is another male main characterwith his own particular neurosis – the hotel where Michael stays takes it name from the Fregoli delusion, which turns this crisis, whether midlife or existential, into a Kafkian nightmare.
Anomalisa’s story takes place between two letters and two different women separated by a decade. Michael’s return home at the end of the movie surely implies the calming of his passions – a condition he knows well, and may be the symptom of systemic alienation. But neither he, nor we will forget the minute and a half during which the charming Lisa harmonized her voice to the sentiment of Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
Edited by Demetrios Matheou
© FIPRESCI 2016