In an age where American cinema is increasingly trapped within rigid genre frameworks, Charlie Kaufman stands out as the most distinctive film-maker left in the country. This technically brilliant but disturbing and depressing picture shows him moving no nearer to the mainstream. It's a nightmarish stop-motion animation, co-directed by animation specialist Duke Johnson, that confronts questions of identity and perception and does not produce reassuring answers.
Michael Stone, an English marketing guru based in Los Angeles, flies to Cincinnati to address a conference. We learn quickly that he is a success at his job, and also that he is living in a private hell, suffering from a (genuine but rare) condition called the Fregoli Delusion, whereby he sees everybody as looking and sounding the same. After a disastrous hook-up with an old flame, back at the hotel, he encounters a woman named Lisa, who sounds very different, and immediately becomes obsessed.
On a technical level, it is a remarkable feat. The animation is full of clever little details, and Michael's world is vividly portrayed; all other puppets have the same face and voice, and can only be distinguished by hairstyle and clothing. And the voice for all these characters, supplied by Tom Noonan, as shown to be persistent and deeply annoying.
The film starts out with a series of embarrassing scenes, which show how this Lancastrian man, voiced by Blackpool's very own David Thewlis, is totally out of his depth. I found myself flinching, particularly, when he encounters neurotic ex-girlfriend Bella in a scene that cannot possibly end well. Much of the film is shot in an anonymous hotel, where the phoney insincerity of the staff is guaranteed to set Stone on edge. There is, of course, a whole cinematic history of hotels being conduits for people losing their minds (The Shining, Barton Fink and Last Year At Marienbad all come to mind), and Anomalisa can only echo this, particularly with its dispiriting shots of seemingly endless hotel corridors. Yet the arrival of Lisa adds a welcome change of tone. After half-an-hour of solely listening to Thewlis and Noonan, the arrival of a third voice, belonging to the always-excellent Jennifer Jason-Leigh, is a breath of fresh air. Lisa, however, has problems of her own (insecurity and low self-esteem), and together Michael and Lisa fumble towards a kind of relationship.
The film peaks with a bravura dream sequence that evokes both Barton Fink and the inspired (Kaufman-scripted) Being John Malkovich. After this, though, I felt the film lost its way, unsure how to find a successful resolution. Athough Michael's return to Los Angeles has some clever echoes of earlier scenes, it felt like we'd moved back to the earlier tone of embarrassment, and it seem to peter out a little. That said, the film's brief coda has an interesting twist, which I think I've only just understood the significance of.
It's not for everyone, but it's ceratinly unique.