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rochefort [Celluloid 10.06.15] animation comedy drama

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a successful author and family man, and on the surface his is a modestly fulfilled life. He arrives in Cincinnati, there to give a speech at a business conference, and checks into his hotel like a man waiting for his walk to the electric chair. Michael briefly chats with his wife on the phone, their exchange terse and loaded with unspoken conflict, then takes a deep breath, looks up an old flame and nervously asks her to meet him in the hotel restaurant. The meeting goes badly, sending Michael further down a spiral of quiet, lonely hopelessness and triggering one of his recurring manic episodes, and in a fit he begins knocking on random doors throughout his hotel floor. Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young, mousy call center manager and a big fan of Michael's book, opens her door and quickly recognizes him, and Michael is immediately smitten with her. Can this finally be the woman he's been looking for all his life?

If you look up Anomalisa on IMDb and check out its rating, you'll notice that the film is rated "R" for "strong sexual content and graphic nudity," which is a pretty surreal thing when you consider that Anomalisa is an animated film that features no actual human beings but rather highly innovative stop-motion puppetry. And since this is a Charlie Kaufman film, co-directed with Duke Johnson, it's an animated film too mature for the kids, and maybe too strange for many adults. Michael is the sort of protagonist typical of Kaufman scripts such as Being John Malkovich and Synedoche, New York, a lonely man out of step with the world, and there's wonderful irony in the fact that his plight might be the most believable and poignant of any of Kaufman's characters to date, despite his being made of felt and adjustable joints.

Most audiences seem to recognize that animated films come with a different set of expectations than live-action films. In a live-action movie, a scene with car crashes and explosions costs a great deal more than one involving a conversation at a dinner table, and budgetary limitations can have as much to do with the aesthetic as anything else. But in an animated movie, be it claymation, stop-motion, hand-drawn or 3D, every frame costs more or less the same, regardless of whether it features flying dragons or an empty room. The decision to create a sombre, intimate drama using meticulously articulated, state of the art puppets (who even "breathe") might seem like an unnecessarily convoluted one, to say the least. And to be honest, for the first third of this movie I was waiting for some sign that the technique was a justified one. The camera follows Michael step by step as he arrives at the hotel, checks in, calls his wife, takes a shower, etc., and while visually interesting there's no overwhelming sense that the story wouldn't be served just as well in live-action.

The genuinely beautiful thing about Anomalisa is in how all the elements come together like a flower blossoming in reverse. What seem at first like peculiar stylistic flourishes, like with how almost all the characters except Michael have the same face and are all voiced by Tom Noonan, gradually come more and more into focus as vital narrative components, and by the story's end you can't help but admit that the filmmakers have been at least one step ahead of you the whole time. The term "labour of love" gets thrown around a lot in moviemaking, but you really feel it here, and it's pretty breathtaking once it registers how fully we've invested in the emotional core of Michael's story. When's the last time a close up of a puppet's face put a lump in your throat? For me, it's a first, and I suspect I'm not the only one.

Filmmakers often talk about showing us something we've never seen before. You have never seen, or felt, a film like this one.

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