The final, lone word uttered in Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York”, is “die”, a terse stage direction as the screen fades to grey. He has been ominously quiet ever since. There were suggestions that Kaufman, the mind behind “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich”, was an ingenious writer, but no director. Now, seven years later, he has finally returned with his existential, stop-motion film “Anomalisa”.
It follows Michael Stone, a quietly depressed motivational speaker who has written a bestseller on customer service and is flying to Cincinnati for a conference. He lands and goes to the hotel, where he gradually unravels the night before his keynote speech. His journey from plane to podium is punctuated by a production line of chattering faces: a cab driver, a hotel clerk, a valet, a waitress. Everyone looks the same – even Michael’s wife and son. Their size and hairstyles change, but their faces remain identical: smooth and blank. The same actor, Tom Noonan, voices all of the characters. His distinctly normal voice varies in pitch but is always recognisably the same. This is what Michael fears: that everyone else, fundamentally, is the same; that he is alone.
“Always remember the customer is an individual, just like you,” says Michael during his talk, and you feel the bitter wit behind this bromide, perfectly delivered in David Thewlis’s Lancashire accent, which pierces through the chorus of bland and affable Tom Noonans. The only other character granted her own face and voice is Lisa, the anomaly: “Anomalisa”. Michael and Lisa are humans among mannequins, and with them Kaufman achieves a delicacy of expression that is rare for stop-motion animation. Michael’s grey eyes have the dim look of someone living within himself; Lisa has a facial burn and the stop-start smile of a shy person occasionally forgetting herself. During the sex scene that helped earn the film its R-rating, we see their heaving bodies and their bumping knees, we hear their giggles and breathy apologies. It is tender and funny and more real than most.
Stop-motion is slow, tricky work – it took six months to shoot that sex scene. The technique involves making silicone puppets, as well as props and landscapes, and then shifting the puppets fractionally from one frame to the next to create the illusion of movement. A good week for Kaufman and his crew would result in just ten seconds of footage. Kaufman may have kept quiet for the last seven years, but he wasn’t idle. He was finding a way to make use of the dark side of stop-motion, what’s known as the “uncanny valley” – when the faces of puppets are so well-crafted, they look spookily human. The effect of this is that the puppets in “Anomalisa” capture something of the banal surrealism of everyday life, of the frightening in the ordinary.
It’s a new style, but not a fresh start. “Anomalisa” is recognisably a Kaufman film, full of mordant humour and preoccupied with authenticity, loneliness and love. But it is less self-consciously clever than his previous films, foregoing the worlds within worlds of “Synecdoche, New York”, the script about scriptwriting of “Adaptation”, and the mental Babushka dolls of “Being John Malkovich”. This film cuts closer to what it is to be human: while we may occasionally enter each other’s orbits, mostly we drift through space, alone, in suspended animation. “Anomalisa” is an extraordinary film. Charlie Kaufman is back, and he is a director.
Anomalisa UK release March 11th