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Film Review: Anomalisa


By Hosam Omran*

A troubled motivational speaker spends one unhappy night in a hotel in Cincinnati. That’s the simple plot of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s 2016 “Anomalisa”, but this British/American animation made with puppets manages to take the viewer into a complex, psychological and thrilling journey.

Played by voice actor David Thewlis, Michael Stone is a middle-aged customer service expert. To him, every person looks and sounds the same, until he meets Lisa. Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lisa Hesselman is a shy and insecure younger woman, with a minor facial disfigurement, who is at the hotel to attend Michael’s talk.

The many faces of Michael Stone
The many faces of Michael Stone. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Kaufman wrote the screenplay based on his 2005 audio play under the name of Francis Fregoli, a reference to the Fregoli delusion: a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are, in fact, a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. Upon realizing the presence of this disorder in the film’s narrative, the entire experience of the storyline expands, as one starts to notice references in every scene. The filmmakers’ use of sound to deliver the main character’s psychological state, how every character (male or female) shared the same voice (actor Tom Noonan’s), how Micheal is enchanted with Lisa’s voice, ultimately delivered the fact that Michael – who exhibits symptoms of depression – is, in fact, suffering from Fregoli delusion.

In its depiction of mental illness, dark humor and sexual content, “Anomalisa” certainly categorizes as adult animation. Earlier adult animation works – like “Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure” (1929) – often took on the pornographic depiction of relationships, but “Anomalisa” delves into the intimacy. Micheal and Lisa – who have imperfect bodies, with wrinkles and fat – spend the night together and fall in love.

Puppets of Michael and Lisa, part of a four month shoot for a single scene.
Puppets of Michael and Lisa, part of a four month shoot for a single scene. Credit: Paramount Pictures

With multiple detailed puppets for each character, the animation team was keen on producing anatomically correct puppetry that could deliver the intensely human storyline. Cinematography included the use of close up shots for intimate scenes, with increased use of general shots throughout the film to show the detailed surroundings. Set design included the use of large-scale cities, built-in interiors, and tiny pieces with which the characters interacted. The lighting seemed to accompany the main character’s emotions, representing his alienation, enchantment and joy. This intricate work made by animator Dan Driscoll took more than two years in the making. A visual invention made from scratch, breathtaking yet serene, for the entirety of its 1 hour and 30 minutes.

“Anomalisa” won countless awards following its release, including the 2015 Grand Special Jury Prize of Venice Film Festival, 2015 Best Animated Feature by San Francisco Films Critics Circle, 2015 Audience Award by Mill Valley Film Festival, 2016 Best Experimental Film at the Internet Film Critic Society and 2016 Best Foreign Film at the Association of Polish Filmmakers Critics Award.

“Anomalisa” is available for viewing or borrowing at the Film Library of the Royal Film Commission – Jordan.

*Hosam Omran is librarian at the Film Library – Royal Film Commission.

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