One strange, absorbing puppet film speaks more poignantly about life than any human performance could achieve
For a sustained meditation on the human condition, it’s hard to better the stop motion film Anomalisa. The Guardian newspaper named it the number one film of 2016, which is some achievement for what is essentially a puppet show.
A depressed and lonely motivational speaker checks into a soulless Cincinnati chain hotel, whose bedroom looks wearily familiar to any business traveller. Michael is waiting to deliver a seminar on customer care and decides to look up an ex-girlfriend in the city; we have already discovered he is unhappily married. Having offended her unintentionally, he returns to his bedroom alone. By now we are conscious of a disconcerting fact: everyone but Michael speaks with the same voice – man and woman.
Presently he hears a woman passing outside his door who is speaking in her own voice. He goes room to room to find her, only to discover she is an attendee at his seminar the next day and in this closed world of customer care, is something of a groupie of his. They have an awkward one night stand and the next day Michael makes a mess of his lecture.
I’ve not exactly sold it, have I? The film is laugh out loud funny in places, as when Michael grapples with a hotel shower that has a mind of its own. There is an odd, almost hypnotic quality to the film, but the triumph is in the searingly honest reflection it holds up to society. Life feels futile to Michael; ‘everything’s boring’ he plaintively offers. His one night stand, Lisa, sings a sadder rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun than you would have thought possible. The use of the same voice for every other character suggests life has become an undifferentiated story, where individuality is lost in today’s endless quest for identity and meaning. What is the point of my life, you can hear Michael asking.
The echoes of the Book of Ecclesiastes can be heard for those listening attentively. ‘Meaningless, meaningless…everything is meaningless’ cries the author. ‘All things are wearisome; more than one can express…What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done’. Michael would have lapped this up, had he opened the Gideon’s Bible in the hotel desk drawer. The quirky Ecclesiastes is the honest expression of human thinking. This is a broken world; it can be ugly, monotonous and much of what we do feels pointless.
There is more of Michael in us than we care to admit, as we find ways of medicating the pain through shopping and drinking. This is the spiritual void at the heart of the film. The director Charlie Kaufman may not have intended it as a piece of pre-evangelism, but it serves this purpose; there is a God-shaped hole in Michael’s life; in our lives.
The indistinguishable voice of the other characters is apparently Kaufman’s critique of the internet as a place where we interact without context, feel disorientated and find it hard to be listened to. We spend our time re-cycling views and opinions we have heard elsewhere, trying to pass them off as our own, forgetting the words of Ecclesiastes itself which mourns sagely that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Yet our individuality is truly expressed in relationship to God, the one who calls us by name.
When Michael hears Lisa’s different voice, he leaps from his room to discover the origin. Only one voice has the power to renew us. Amid the cacophony of noise in our connected world, it is the still, small – differentiated – voice of God we need to tune into and, like Michael, search diligently for until we have found it.
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