Film (2015). Paramount Animation, HanWay Films, Harmonius Claptrap. Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman. Written by Kaufman. Voice cast includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, David Thewlis. 90 minutes. Colour.
Anomalisa is a nonfantastic tale filmed as an exercise in stop-motion animation, with 3D-printed marionettes representing the human cast, a technique usually restricted to children's Television. Each character except the protagonist has the same puppet face, though makeup and hairstyles superficially modify this effect; and except for the two principal named characters, the entire cast is voiced by one actor (Noonan), only one of these figures being given a name. The unspoken but relentless affect of defeatured melancholia thus generated conveys an uncanny-valley intensity to a narrative clearly designed to portray in Satirical terms a commodified, suburbanized, Dystopian mid-America in 2005 (the year Charlie Kaufman wrote the original script).
The story, which is simple, is seen almost entirely through the POV of its protagonist, Michael Stone (Thewlis), a successful entrepreneur of customer-service skills, adept in the corrosive pornotopic enablement-speak of that profession; in this world he has something like guru status. We first encounter him on an early-evening flight to Cincinnati, where he is due to deliver a pep-talk at a conference the next day. Everything befits the world he moves through: the plane, the terminal, the cab to the Fregoli Hotel where he is booked in, the surreally sedulous reception clerk, the beige-boltered corridors awaiting a new look, the room whose features are extensively menuized by the bellhop but is in fact identical to – a fungible of – any other previously-owned hotel room we are to imagine Michael having occupied.
He calls an old girl friend, has a drink with her, but the conversation turns rancorous. He then encounters two young women who will be attending his address the next day. He peremptorily selects one of them, Lisa Hesselman (Leigh); like him, she is both named and individually voiced, though she wears the group face. They go to his room and have Sex; it is initially awkward but ultimately very touching. In the night, he undergoes a long tortuous nightmare down Kafka-clickbait corridors and into a infinitely large office, where the hotel manager tells him he can sleep with anyone but Lisa; he escapes, the skin on his face peels off to reveal marionettish architecture within, naked Robot innards.
Michael and Lisa awake in the morning. They part. He buys an grotesquely inappropriate sex toy as a birthday present for his very young son. He gives his conference speech, which goes off the rails – "The world is falling apart. The President [the Second Bush] is a war criminal." – though his guru status overrides any embarrassment. He flies back home. There is a birthday party in full swing. His son does not like the sex toy. His wife notes that semen is coming out of its mouth. He has nothing to say.
We are given several clues that Michael is in the grips of some traumatic life crisis: it may be a private fugue state that has locked him into a state of disablement, or an opening of the eyes to the world that America has turned into: most likely, given Charlie Kaufman's previous films, both. The most explicit marker – this, and his observed distress, are the only diegetic clues to his condition – is the fact that the Fregoli Hotel takes its name from the Fregoli Delusion, a neuropsychiatric condition whose victims are convinced that every other person they meet is the same person in disguise. Kaufman has used this covert kind of diegetical finger-pointing before: Caden Cotard, the protagonist of the slightly earlier Synecdoche, New York (2008), is named after the Cotard Delusion whose victims believe that they are dead.
But what might seem the main clue to Michael's existential dilemma – the use of stop-motion animated marionettes throughout – is strictly extradiegetic: not readable as part of the embedded story. Audiences are necessarily very deft at taking on board artifactual non-signals of this sort: we do not baulk at adolescent boys playing women in Shakespeare; nor do we think a film shot in black-and-white denotes a black and white world, or that film music fills the world with music. Contemporary experimental films which foreground the backward and abysm that separates the diegetic from the extradiegetic tend to be understood, after more than a century of commercial cinema, as fatally reinventing the wheel (see Perception). Kaufman does no more than allow us to see that he could, if he had so wished, have pounded his point to death. He eschews this opportunity. Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Still, there may be more than one film here; it would be unlike this director for there not to be. Though they are not held in anything like Equipoisal balance, the two theoretically possible readings of Anomalisa – as a nonfantastic anecdote about modern Identity in a commodified world, and as an sf film which tells us that a man who thinks he is the centre of the universe may not be mistaken – do necessarily hover in the apprehending mind of the viewer. The close-to-contemporary Under the Skin (2013) does stand as a plausible example of two films told simultaneously, both joined together in one viewing, every action embodying a diegetic co-tenancy: at the same time a conventional narrative with distressing metaphors and an sf narrative in which nothing is metaphor. No such intramarital intimacy characterizes Anomalisa: only at one point, during the protagonist's dream, does any flickering of doubleness distress the eye. With some ingenuity, an sf reading for Anomalisa can be constructed in which that dream is the world made visible at last – as in Philip D Dick's Time Out of Joint (1958), or The Matrix (1999) – and that America is in truth a Virtual Reality horrorshow, a construct designed to lock us forever into a state of deranged and desperate stasis, like undead flies in amber. But this will not quite do.
Any subliminal expectation we may have that the tale might really end with Michael revealed as the master of some Godgame – Groundhog Day (1993), which is also perceived through its protagonist's POV, inevitably comes to mind – is cancelled out not only by his failure to order a real reality to take over, but by Anomalisa itself, which leaves him to his trauma: for in the end he is nothing but a Meme-suggestive character in the world. In the very last scene, Michael and his narcissistic POV now totally absent, we encounter the two female protagonists, Lisa Hesselman (Leigh) and her friend Emily (Noonan's only named character), in their car. They have their own faces, though it is the same terrible world outside. The film ends.
So Anomalisa is not sf. It is a slice of life. As far as this film is able to say, the parole of Fantastika is beyond the diegesis of America. Anomalisa is a Prison film, made in prison. [JC]
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