ANOMALISA. Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong sex scene). 90 min.

This American, animated film in "stop motion" is written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, and is based on Kaufman's 2005 play script of the same name. It won the Grand Special Jury Prize at the 2015 Venice Film Festival. Kaufman was the director of the excellent "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004).

A lonely English author, called Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), travels across from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, Ohio, to promote his latest book at a convention. He is scheduled to deliver a keynote motivational address on customer service, but he is a speaker in crisis. He is deeply unhappy with himself, his marriage and his child, but depression is not his main problem. To him (as well as to the viewer), everyone around him sounds the same. This includes his wife and child.

He checks into The Hotel Fregoli, and after a failed attempt to socialise with an ex-girl friend (who sounds like everyone else), he goes back to his hotel room, where he hears the voice of a young woman, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), somewhere outside his room and it sounds strangely different. He suddenly realises that it is not the same as all the others.

At this point, it is necessary to explain the title and context of this extraordinarily imaginative film. The hotel's name, "Fregoli", clinically describes a rare person-identification disorder in which the person who has the disorder is convinced that different people are actually the same person trying to persecute them, but capable of assuming various appearances. In the movie everyone that Michael hears speaks the same. Because Lisa has a different voice, Michael sees her as an anomaly, which explains the title of the movie, and "Anomalisa" becomes his name for Lisa. The film uses puppets, which act human-like. The artificiality of the puppets' appearances emphasises the sameness of their voices. Because the only voices in the film that are different are Michael's and Lisa's (the voices of everyone else are Tom Noonan's), the focus of the film is kept on the relationship between them. In a highly creative way, the film is about an emotionally isolated man (Michael) who makes a rare connection with another human being (Lisa), who, like him, has low self-esteem. It captures human isolation dramatically, and the sameness of the voices is used to depict the difficulty of establishing real-life human contact that is socially meaningful.

The film uses "stop motion", a specific animation technique where movement is captured by the camera in small increments, and the series of photographed frames creates the appearance of continuous movement. In this film, the puppet interactions are deliberately imperfect, which incongruously create the look of naturalness which is a look that Michael finds so hard to see around him. The quality of the puppetry is superb, and the film carefully constructs the paradoxical appearance of intimacy. This is not a warm movie that plugs at the heart strings, but it is one that focuses pointedly, with forceful scripting, on human alienation and the problems of finding human connectedness. The puppetry sex scene, which is responsible for the film's restricted MA15+ classification, is amazingly intimate in its authentic-looking awkwardness. The morning after, the impact of the night before has an unexpected effect: at breakfast, Michael's paranoia surfaces, and Lisa's voice starts to change.

This is an absurdist-drama film that is strikingly original. It links despair with moments of snatched happiness and combines them with dark humour, delivered dryly. The film is filled with uncomfortable truths. With the help of novel techniques, it re-constructs emotions, and captures brilliantly and imaginatively the uncertainty of projecting a personal identity that is stable, and consistent. Importantly, it tells the viewer to search for more than what makes people look the same. Michael ends his address, which is a total failure, with positive messages the consumer-driven convention delegates really don't want to hear. Michael tells them, to always smile and "look for something special about each individual".

This is an extraordinarily creative film with significant social and personal messages of a kind that the viewer is urged to hear, see and understand. There is no other film around that is quite like this one.

Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting Paramount Pictures

Released February 4th., 2016

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