Anomalisa (2015)


A story of depression, alienation and looking for love where the human characters are played by puppets, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is unsettling and haunting.

The Puppetmaster

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Charlie Kaufman’s story of alienation is all the more unnerving for being played out by puppets. Uncannily realistic, rather stocky mini-people, yet with visible joins around the mask of their puppet faces, their slightly jerky stop-motion movements create a woozily dreamlike atmosphere.

Anomalisa takes place over two days, mainly in a bland mid-market hotel in Cincinnatti. Customer services guru Michael Stone flys in to give a speech next day based on his motivational book. Voiced by David Thewlis, his gruff, downbeat North of England accent conveys his midlife, low-key depression. Everyone he meets looks and sounds the same to him. Indeed, they do all have the same anonymous mask-like face and everyone – the taxi driver, the bellhop, even his wife and son on the phone – has the same monotonous, impersonal “customer services” American voice (all by Tom Noonan). Sometimes it becomes a cacophony that only he can hear.

Alone in his hotel room, he drinks and smokes too much, and calls up an old flame. Even she has Tom Noonan’s voice. “There’s something wrong with me. Everything’s boring,” he confesses to her, maladroitly. Plodding back, and in his room after their disastrous meeting, he suddenly hears a voice in the corridor – it’s the first and only voice he’s heard that sounds different. Unable to resist, he rushes out to find its owner. Lisa (brilliantly voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a gauche young woman, a customer services agent who has come here specially with her friend Em to hear him speak. She is self-conscious about a burn scar on one side of her face. After more drinks, he persuades her back to his room to spend the night.

He seems to be genuinely charmed by her voice and encourages her to sing to him. To him, her difference from everyone else makes her an anomaly, his Anomalisa. She’s overawed, nervous, unsure. Touchingly, she sings Cindi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun for him. He asks to kiss her scar. Gradually he seduces her into bed, telling her to be as verbal as she wants, and they have sex. It’s realistically awkward sex between people who have only just met. The fact that it’s between puppets makes it bizarrely uncomfortable to watch.

But it’s only a brief respite from his ennui. He has a nightmare that is both chilling and comic in which his face starts to lift off to show the works underneath. Next morning, as Lisa shows pathetic eagerness to please him, her voice starts to blend into Tom Noonan’s and become like all the others. Giving his speech later that day, he goes into meltdown. The hotel is the Fregoli, a hint by Kaufman at the syndrome of the same name, a delusion that different people are actually a single person in disguise – thus the creepy sameness of all the faces and voices that Stone sees surrounding him. The customer services industry too is an apt modern-day metaphor for everything that is artificial and souless. Searching for meaning and love, only Lisa, Stone feels, can save him, but perhaps he is beyond saving.

Kaufman, of course, is known for wildly imaginative and idiosyncratic screenplays – Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Anomalisa is adapted from both his stage play and radio play with the same actors. In this film version, the puppets are so real that at times it’s almost possible to forget they’re not human. Stone does briefly suspect he’s not human, but it’s in a nightmare. In an interview with the Guardian, Kaufman commented on the film, “The fact that they’re puppets being manipulated becomes an existential issue as well. You know someone’s manipulating them – they don’t know it.” These oh-so-recognisable puppets are so human and that’s what makes Anomalisa so subconsciously unnerving and haunting.

Anomalisa is released on 11th March 2016 in the UK

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