Thursday, 18 August 2016


"And you may find yourself
In another part of the world"

"And you may ask yourself
Well, how did I get here?"

Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime

Anomalisa, from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is one of those films that is simultaneously vague about what its meaning is (if it has one), and yet seems to impress upon the viewer a deep need to be understood (a little like it's protagonist). When I say that I took it principally to be a parable on man's tendency to force his will upon those around him and make everything fit his desires perfectly, this could ring profoundly true for you, or seem like a dire misinterpretation; and that's fine. But no matter how you take the film, nobody can deny its truth, or its power; indeed, it is true and powerful because it has a genuine conception of the intricacies of the human soul. Near the end of the film, the main character David Stone (David Thewlis) announces to an audience that "every human has aches... What does it mean to ache? What does it mean to be human?"

Simply, he doesn't know, the filmmakers don't know, I have no clue, and if you claim to know then I wouldn't believe you. But despite the profound lack of answers, this film is still asking the right questions. It is about the search for meaning in a world that can be scary, mundane, arbitrary, and cruel. Yet "the search for meaning" seems so trite; perhaps it is about realising that the search is futile and the end in itself, because the meaning is hidden from view by virtue of the nature of our existence.

I'm running round in circles, but that's because for 90 minutes I let Kaufman and Johnson run rings around me. Their film, on the surface, is about a middle aged man, British but living in L.A, giving a conference in Cincinnati. In one of the films many little ironies, the talk he is giving is on how to best deliver customer service; on how to best deal with people. This information is withheld for the opening passages, just long enough to observe that David is quite a curt, brusque, arguably rude person. He does not suffer fools lightly. He has a habit of rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Small talk does not come naturally to him. Various people ask him to repeat things he's said, and it's clear that he is not a man who is understood all that well; another of the films ironies.

Once he is in his hotel room, he rings up and old lover, and meets her in the hotel bar. She seems overwhelmed; he seems like he is following an impulse with little thought. We gather that they were very close- perhaps once in a lifetime love- but he walked out, or perhaps ran. He talks about running a lot. She misconstrues an invite to his room for a proposition of sex (or maybe it wasn't misconstrued at all?) and storms out. David's emptiness is made palpable. But curiously, we do not pity him; we simply understand.

Yet the main bulk of the film consists of David speaking to a woman called Lisa, who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. I say voiced because this film is acted out entirely with stop-motion puppets. I will not say that the animation is seamless, and I forgot I was watching puppets; the viewer is constantly aware of this fact. But the puppets themselves are indescribably human, and it is here that true credit must go to Johnson's animating style; he must be a very adept people watcher, because his eye for the nuances of human movement is breathtaking. Everyone else in the film; David's wife, his son, the bellboy, his taxi driver, his old lover, are all voiced by Tom Noonan. His initial attraction to Lisa is the simple fact that she sounds different. He feels he can love this person; he wants to love her.

And this is where, for me, the film perhaps reveals its true hand, because it seems to be to be about the myth surrounding men that they can somehow be saved by a woman. David immediately puts her on a pedestal. It is arguable that he preys on her insecurities to get her into bed, although she is attracted to him straight away, and is self-aware and capable, even if she pretends not to be. When David tells her that she is extraordinary, her actual qualities could not be further from his mind, and he instead just cares about the fact that he has someone to offload on, that he has found someone who has allowed him to feel.

This could read as criticism, but I do not mean it to be. A critique of masculinity is just one of the many things at play in this film, it was just also the most apparent to me as I was watching it. David is, ultimately, a human, humans contain multitudes, and as such we can scorn, pity, love, and empathise with him all at once, perhaps in the same scene. The fact of his selfishness does not de-legitimise the depth and breadth of his feelings, or his lack of feelings, or both.

Is this film optimistic or pessimistic? I think it is both. David is none the wiser at the end of the film, reconciled with his wife, playing with his son. Everyone still sounds the same. He sits on his stairs, looking miserable. He has not learned his lesson, is even perhaps unaware that there is some kind of lesson to be learnt. We do not really hold out much hope for him, and despite his intentions, he still does not feel any deeper than he did before.

Yet Lisa, having taken their encounter to be a brief but sweet break from mundanity, smiles in her car as she writes him a farewell letter. She understands the situation, and allows herself to be hopeful. Her meeting with David may have even taught her a little more about herself, and eventually raised her confidence. This is healthy; after the fact, she has assessed the impact it had on her, and realised that it had one. This is the opposite of David, who attempted to manufacture an evening to somehow teach him to love again; of course it failed.

This is a complex film with complex emotions that I feel I have described incoherently and with little tact or subtlety, which is against the grain of this film and its general spirit. Let me put it more simply for you. It is a better film than I think I have words in my vocabulary to describe it. You will never forget it.

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