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Kate Johnstone reviews Anomalisa.

The writer and director of the film Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman, is not a psychologist. But he is obviously fascinated by the human psyche, and has used psychology in playful and imaginative ways in previous films (such as autobiographical memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). His films also always have a surreal bent, and Anomalisa is no different.

It was made using a painstaking stop-motion animation method, with foot-high puppets. The medium means that there’s no pretence of ‘reality’, but the storyline is all too boringly real. Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a well-known author and speaker, flying into Cincinnati for one night to promote his book. We see Michael arrive on the plane; take a taxi to his hotel (driven by an aggressively chatty driver); check into the hotel; follow the porter carrying his small bag, and listen to a description of the room and its facilities. Each step has a ritual which cannot be short circuited. There’s not just the politeness which two strangers must show each other, there’s the fact that one is the customer, and the other is providing a service. Naturally, the book which Michael is promoting is about giving good customer service. But what about the customer himself? What if he doesn’t care about ‘customer service’? What if he just wants to get to the hotel and lie down in his room with minimal human interaction? Anyone who has ever felt dehumanised by a stay in a chain hotel for one night (which must be everyone) will sympathise.

But it’s during Michael’s journey to his hotel room that the central conceit of the film becomes apparent (this has been widely reported, but don’t read on if you want it to remain a surprise). Everyone expect Michael looks the same. Everyone except Michael has the same voice (provided by Tom Noonan). It takes a little while to realise this, maybe because puppet faces are not human faces, and have an intrinsic ‘sameness’. The effect is deadening, confusing, disconcerting.

The hotel Michael has checked into is called The Fragoli, which is a reference to Fragoli delusion, a rare delusional misidentification syndrome. This is the delusion that different people are the same person, but in disguise or with otherwise changed appearance. It is normally a paranoid delusion, with the delusional person believing that they are being persecuted by the person in disguise. Michael does not appear paranoid, although he is depressed. But then he hears a different voice in the corridor, a woman’s voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and everything changes.

Kaufman has been here before. In Being John Malkovitch which he wrote, John Malkovitch finds himself in a restaurant where every single man, woman and child is played by John Malkovitch. It is both extremely funny and sinister. Anomalisa is never quite that funny or menacing, although it does have one scene of unsurpassed awkwardness and embarrassment which human actors could not better. It is, however, a questioning film. Kaufman is interested in physical appearance, and especially faces: what does it mean to be in a world where faces are not unique? But he is saying much more about identity, and the essence of being human. Identical faces might be a metaphor for our identical (deluded?) selves – is the only real difference between us is that you order a Cobb salad and I order steak from room service? It’s likely you’ll leave Amonalisa deep in thought, which is rare for Hollywood, and praise indeed.

- Reviewed by Kate Johnstone, Associate Editor for Reviews. Anomalisa is on general release, and out on DVD on 7 June.

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