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Welcome to Hotel Fregoli

Charlie Kaufman fucks with reality once again in animated feature Anomalisa
Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis
Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis

The screenwriter and occasional director Charlie Kaufman has been delightfully gas-lighting moviegoers since 1999’s Being John Malkovich, a film that takes place, quite literally, inside the head of John Malkovich. Like Rod Serling before him, Kaufman loves to knock everything just slightly off kilter, creating an existential free fall that is at once exhilarating and upsetting. Using wry humor to offset his philosophical heebie-jeebies, Kaufman’s what-if movies pry open absurd cracks in accepted reality until a plausible explanation of our human condition emerges.

Is this the definition of surrealism? I don’t know. And I don’t know what to think about Kaufman’s latest film, other than it’s quite good. Anomalisa is an animated feature that employs the old-fashioned stop-motion technique — a technique that, like puppetry, is disarmingly effective in creating an aura of real-life reality. The “characters” in this film are at once less than human and more so. In that less-more gap, a kind of emotional urgency brews up unexpectedly.

On its surface, Kaufman’s film, which he co-directed with Duke Johnson, couldn’t be more ordinary and uneventful, almost dull. Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis), a self-help author suffering a mid-life crisis, flies to Cincinnati to deliver a lecture; he checks into the Hotel Fregoli (the Fregoli delusion is the belief that all people are actually the same person); he dials up a jilted ex-lover for drinks; he meets a woman, Lisa, in the hotel and they have sex. Sounds like any other weekend in Cincinnati, right?

But, this being Kaufman’s world, there are the expected fissures in reality, one of them not just figurative: a small line, a crack, runs from the corner of every character’s face, giving it a mask-like, robotic appearance. And it doesn’t take long to realize that, aside from Michael, everyone in the world, male and female, has the exact same voice (the gentle coo of Tom Noonan) and general appearance. Could it be that Michael is such a pathological narcissist that everyone is simply a projection of his miserable self? Or, just perhaps, is he yet another cog in the replicated matrix of consumerism, trapped in a brave new world of manufactured consent?

What a mind fuck.

When, halfway through the movie, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears with her distinct voice and blemished face, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with her, because love, for Michael, and perhaps for all of us, is simply relief from the monotony of life — a suspicion horribly confirmed in a nightmare Michael has after he sleeps with Lisa, his beautiful “anomaly” of a woman.

(And speaking of sex: the scene of Lisa and Michael in bed marks an unprecedented moment in the history of cinema; it is almost excruciatingly realistic, a protracted coupling that is at once touching and wince-inducing. If for no other reason, see the movie for this segment.)

The animation of Anomalisa suits Kaufman’s absurdist temperament eerily well. In doing away with real actors — in doing away with the so-called real world — he’s able to dig more deeply into the human condition by combining the ordinary and fantastic, the deep and the shallow, in a way that is otherwise just not feasible. When an already manipulated reality begins to fall apart, the effects are jarring, as though the suspension of disbelief is being turned inward upon its own mechanisms of perception. (Bijou Metro)