Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, is a perfect little nugget of weirdness and mundanity. Set in one of those hotels we’ve all been to - keycards that defy all logic, identical bedrooms with black furniture and views of concrete rooftops, and the unshakeable knowledge that someone else was in that bed last night - Anomalisa is almost kitchen-sink, but kitchen-sink in a stop-motion world, and kitchen-sink à la Kaufman with a disorientating and cataclysmic plunge into the paranoid shadows of the human psyche.
Michael Stone (voice by David Thewlis) is a bored, washed-up, middle-aged English guy who has written a motivational book for the customer service industry and is in Cincinnati to speak at a conference. Michael is something of a celebrity in the customer service world, and to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has traveled to listen to his talk, he is an inspiration. They meet, fall in love and have a night together, but a nightmare in which Michael’s inner narcissist runs amok spills into his waking life and the next day his talk is a crashing mess. He becomes obsessed with the idea that he is the only real person in the entire world, and that everyone else is a clone - a theme beautifully illustrated by having all characters apart from Michael and Lisa voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. Apart from the two leads, all the other characters have the same face.
The models are 11” tall with 3D-printed removable faces rendered in every possible permutation of facial expressions and mouth shapes. The 3D-printing gives the faces a particulate glow that is hard to describe, but the effect is that they have a softness, a smudginess about them that makes them warm, photogenic, and very alive. The animators’ decision to keep the sections visible so that you can see the mechanics of the face is a clever one: you are always reminded that these are stop motion models, not creepy uncanny valley human pretenders.
At a preview screening of the film at Hackney Picture House, Kaufman, co-director DukeJohnson and producer Rosa Tran explained how Anomalisa came to be. Anomalisa started out as an audio play - it was meant to be heard, not seen. It was performed onstage in 2005, with the three actors (Thewlis, Jason Leigh and Noonan) sitting at a table, and a foley artist who did all the sound effects. It was only years later that Kaufman was approached by Duke Johnson from Starburns Industries animation studio, who was looking for an adult script to animate. While Kaufman had never meant Anomalisa to be a film, he could see that it could work as an animation, and reworked the script to this end. The team used Kickstarter to fund the project, so that they could have complete artistic control and make the film they wanted to, how they wanted to make it.
Animation is the ideal visual medium for this story: in a live action version, the character of Lisa would have been a manic pixie dream girl and the scene in which she sings a serious and heartfelt rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with her eyes shut would have tread a very very close line between endearing and annoying. In stop-motion, Lisa is utterly mesmerising. In stop-motion, Michael’s flaws are more forgivable and his human fallibility is extra-human. An animated character has none of the self-censoring and awareness of a real human, its guard is down, and its soul is heartbreakingly laid bare.
* Anomalisa will be in cinemas in the UK on March 11