Charlie Kaufman is certainly no stranger to metafiction, bringing us, among other extremely weird movies, Adaptation, a film about a writer whose screenplay, its literary inspiration, and reality become weirdly intertwined and start acting all Nicolas Cage-y. In Adaptation the degree of metafiction is dependent on strange plot developments and scenarios. Anomalisa, which Kaufman directed with stop-motion master Duke Johnson, shows its self-consciousness not only through plot and storyline, but through its form and appearance.
Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation film, but possesses the realism of live-action. It does not present itself as a caricature of real life, as most animation does, but delivers a rather good job reflecting it. The fact that the sets look very real and the story takes place in ordinary everyday places works towards the balance between ‘real’ and ‘fiction’, which is a strange dynamic in Anomalisa‘s case. Animation is defined by the abscence of absolute representation, while in this particular film the resemblance with actual people and places is so strange, uncanny even, that the audience is almost obligated to submit to disbelief. Anomalisa does not conceal the fact that it is a mere representation of real life, while many live-action movies do, but simultaneously it does represent it so extraordinarily well.
A great example of this strange dynamic is the already infamous scene in which Michael and Lisa make love. I dare to say that it is one of the most realistic sex scenes ever shown in cinema, not only because it is very awkward for the characters as well as the spectator, but also because it is actually quite explicit. Anomalisa‘s audience is doomed to be shocked by live cunnilingus preformed on and by clay puppets. It is in this scene that the collision between fiction and reality is most obvious. Anomalisa is an animation; we expect it to be friendly, appropriate for all ages and above all not too close to reality. Yet, we are presented a film that blurs the line between animation and live-action by its stunning visuals and realistic acting, that is approaching and questioning lifelike situations. This is most apparent when we are watching sexual intercourse between two ‘people’, knowing it does a very accurate job of representing real life, while also noting that it is so different than the sex scenes usually shown by cinema and television.
Furthermore, the unlikely course of the plot is taking the attention of the spectator from the events in the plot to its structure. About halfway through the film – and I would like to warn the reader for spoilers here – is a sequence which satisfies our hunger for a linear and coherent plot. The entire film we ask ourselves why the faces of the clay puppets are so obviously made out of two segments that can be taken off of their skull. We wish to see what is beneath the artificial faces, and eventually, our wish is granted: Michael’s face falls off. Suddenly the story gets a very Kaufman twist, and those who are familiar with his previous productions know that they are in for a treat. Except, the sudden strange but seemingly right acceleration in events turns out to be a mere dream of the main character. Feel the film laughing in your face.
After the dream sequence the story continues in a rather straight-forward way. The film ends without an ending, and all we know at the end of the film is that – spoiler again – we were in Michael’s mind all along and he was a very, very lonely man. Pretty unsatisfying, but pretty cool as well, because, to put it in a simple way: it seems that Kaufman is messing with the image the average cinephile has of him and ventures far beyond the audience’s expectation. In terms of weird: the only way Kaufman could go was backwards, and Anomalisa unexpectedly turned out to be a rather ‘normal’ (compared to Synecdoche, New York or Being John Malkovich, at least) and unsatisfying but beautiful story. It all results in a critical reflection on itself: “Sometimes there is no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself”.