Beth Perkin reviews Charlie Kaufman’s quietly groundbreaking masterpiece
There’s something distinctly creepy about hotels. Each room is identical to the next, an exact copy complete with offensively inoffensive colour palette and anally made bed. It’s no surprise that Stephen King thought it the ideal location for the action of The Shining. Hotels, with their perturbing banal repetition, are beige mazes, places to get lost in and to lose yourself.
Charlie Kaufman seems to share this conviction given his choice to set Anomalisa in the pointedly named “Fregoli” hotel – a mirror to protagonist Michael Stone’s (David Thewlis) passionless, disoriented existence. Like so many of Kaufman’s characters, Michael is sad, lonely, and solipsistic in the extreme, wanting desperately to reach outside of himself but not knowing how. This notion is enforced by the unusual choice of the animators not to paint out the seams on the characters’ faces imbues them with a fractured, broken quality and emphasizes the separation of body and mind.
Michael’s world is a world of miscommunication. An Englishman living in America, he is repeatedly misunderstood as words become slippery and manifold in meaning. In one of the film’s first scenes, as Michael is driven to his hotel, his taxi driver is unable to make out what he is saying. This failure of communication recalls an earlier Kaufman work, Being John Malkovich, however that scene was played for laughs. Here, it is only unsettling to watch Michael struggling and isolated in his inability to ever truly articulate the sheer complexity of what’s going on inside.
As a literature student, I’ve always been drawn to Kaufman’s scripts, which feel almost novelistic in their approach. Anomalisa is a marked departure from this literary style, which makes sense given the screenplay is adapted from Kaufman’s 2005 stage play of the same name. Lacking the sheer absurdity of Being John Malkovich and the formal pyrotechnics of Adaptation, Anomalisa stands stark in the relative simplicity of its narrative. It is in this bold paring down that it now becomes clear why Kaufman cites playwright Samuel Beckett as a creative influence.
While the screenplay may not contain nearly as many of the surreal flourishes of his previous films, Kaufman instead asserts his radical artistry through the film’s very medium: stop-motion animation. That Anomalisa is made using puppets paradoxically allows it to be more profoundly real than if it featured live actors.
The world that Kaufman and Johnson have created is startlingly realistic to the point that you forget it’s even animated. The scene that stayed with me long after I left the cinema was one so mundane it seems strange I even remembered it. In it, the protagonist Michael is doing something we all do every single day; getting out of the shower. The scene is startling in its honesty as Michael towels off, unashamedly naked, paunchy and deeply middle-aged.
In standard Hollywood live-action fare, Michael would most likely have been played by some sexy, chiselled type because, let’s be honest, there’s not much else to choose from. In fact, the scene in question may even have been cut due to typical contractual constraints and nudity clauses. What results is an animated film that is more beautifully, profoundly and unusually human than most of what Hollywood has to offer.
For most of us, it’s easy to fall into the trap of mundane everyday existence, slumping into a life of drudgery where every day, like the endless rooms of a hotel, feels the same. It’s easy, amidst all this blandness, to forget that life is beautiful. That’s why the moments that we do remember – those moments of epiphany where the whole world seems to sing –are truly what make life worth living.
Featured image credit: Rolling Stone