Closing off the 2016 edition of the Glasgow Film Festival is Anomalisa, the directorial return of Charlie Kaufman; here he collaborates with animator Duke Johnson, which is certainly an interesting pairing. The film has received a seemingly endless list of plaudits, including an Academy Award nomination and the Grand Jury Prize in Venice. However, it is an intentionally difficult film to love, making for brave choice to round off the festival.
Anomalisa is a desperately sad film, brimming with pathos towards its two main characters, neither of whom are particularly satisfied with their lives. We follow a day in the life of middle-aged Michael Stone (David Thewlis) – a semi-famous motivational speaker, within the customer service industry – who arrives at a hotel in Cincinnati, from Los Angeles, to give a speech. While there he is haunted by memories of an old flame from Cincinnati, while away from his wife and child. If this all sounds weirdly familiar, you’d be right, Anomalisa is highly self-aware about its own mundanity; indeed, it is a big part of the story.
But what sets Anomalisa apart is a storytelling device, whereby Michael has a mental condition in which he sees everyone with the same face and hears them with the same voice (Tom Noonan). This is fairly disorientating at first, as Noonan’s voice becomes the omnipresent “other” in all instances, meaning one can only distinguish Michael from the crowd. Michael is depressed about the mundanity of his life and this single voice that represents everyone else is a metaphor for how devalued and disenfranchised people can become with life. What is troubling is that Michael isn’t particularly likable himself, which creates an uneasy and anxious mood as the film progresses.
Things change when a female voice is heard, belonging to Lisa (brilliantly performed by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who also possesses her own face; as a result, Michael becomes instantly infatuated with her. Lisa is staying at the hotel with her friend Emily (Noonan, again), who has traveled from upstate Akron to attend Michael’s convention and is hugely self-conscious about herself, after an apparent attack earlier in life. While the film as a whole possesses a dream-like quality – which is a result of the animation – it never loses that authentic human touch, often making it difficult to distinguish between dream and reality.
What’s fascinating about this film is how its use of human-esque puppets and stop-motion animation allows it to reflect everyday occurrences and interactions more realistically than most live action films. As this is an animated film, Kaufman and Johnson are free to show sex and nudity without censorship and while that may sound like a potentially titillating aspect, it is treated as a normal, even awkward aspect of life. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Michael gets increasingly angry at a shower fluctuating between hot and cold, something almost all of us have experienced. Meanwhile, when we get to the sex scene – though it contains erotic aspects – it is also an extremely believable interaction between two timid people who have just met and aren’t too sure about what they are doing.
So Anomalisa manages to really explore the human condition, without displaying any actual humans. The real triumph of Kaufman and Johnson’s film is that they have managed to show – through animation – how humans are passionate, tragic, awkward, frustrated and flawed beings who experience disappointment, as well as fleeting moments of fancy. It’s a tough film to close a festival with, because of the univerally melancholic feelings it evokes. However, there is a warmth in the film’s humor and style that keeps it from becoming too alientating; instead, Anomalisa shows us the moments that make life worth living.
Finally, I’d like to say thanks for reading my coverage of Glasgow Film Festival 2016. Your kind words and engagement has made it all worth it and the festival itself was a real success, with the highest attendance numbers to date. Also congratulations to Mustang for winning the Audience Award, it was a worthy winner.