You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Uncivil Servant: “Anomalisa” and “45 Years”

Mitchell Abidor
January 4, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor YEAR 2015 ended with the release of two films that are radically different from each other in form and content but nevertheless form a striking couple.

The first is Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-action puppet-show film, Anomalisa. Despite its purely cinematic form, it actually began as a play, and despite Kaufman’s track record (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Synecdoche, New York), it required a Kickstarter campaign to initiate the funding process.

The film centers around Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a motivational speaker on a speaking trip to Cincinnati, whose life is falling to pieces. He’s had it with his wife, had it with his son, and in a desperate attempt to connect with someone gets in touch with a lover from his past; this reunion, too, goes horribly wrong, The world outside him is just one dismal mass, everyone looking the same, everyone sounding the same. Literally. Kaufman and Johnson have all the characters outside the main one voiced by one actor, Tom Noonan. Male, female, adult, child, they are all the same; all the male figures have the same face, all the female figures the same face. Anomalisa is the ultimate portrait of one man’s isolation in the wider world. It is also an exemplification of what is known as Fregoli’s Delusion, the belief that everyone in the world is one person in different disguises. But Kaufman takes this psychiatric condition and turns it into a description of an existential state.

Until Michael meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh): unsure of herself, with a scar on her face that she hides, and unable to believe that Michael, whose work she adores, can really be taking an interest in her. Lisa, an anomaly in Michael’s world, has, like Michael, her own distinct voice, and when the sound of it stands out from the muddle, we feel viscerally the importance of the voice of the one who matters to us. The film is about the ways love makes one person stand out above all others, and how quickly it can fade, and how quickly we can find ourselves isolated again.

KP_300026_crop_1200x720THIS IS WHAT TIES IT to a film as different on the surface as Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. Brilliantly acted by Tom Courtenay and the splendid Charlotte Rampling, it depicts the week leading up to the couple’s forty-fifth anniversary party — and paradoxically, it, too, is about isolation.

Geoff Mercer (Courtenay) is informed that the body of Katya, his girlfriend of fifty years ago, who fell off a cliff while they were hiking in the Swiss Alps, has been found intact in the ice, preserved just as she was then. The film is based on a short story by David Constantine, who has said that the idea was inspired by real events, but the conceit speaks to the larger issue of memory, for in memory all those we knew are frozen at the age and in the appearance we knew them in, while we have grown older. Our memories are our private glaciers in the Alps.

The discovery of this love from the past enters Geoff and Kate’s (Rampling) current life: What did Katya mean to him? Did he want to marry her? Has that missed chance haunted their marriage? These questions now haunt Kate, and Geoff as well — perhaps, for it is the genius of the film that Andrew Haigh places the wife at the center of the tale. Geoff is clearly suffering from this reminder of his youth, of the lost love and the lost idealism of the 1960s, when he was in his early twenties, but he barely expresses anything verbally, for the film tracks Kate through the week, as she tries to come to terms with her husband’s past, a past he has barely made her aware of in their forty-five years of marriage, and that now, in retrospect, has poisoned their happiness.

In both films, the heart of the tale is the way we live our inwardness, the things that are only ours, and the attempt to escape that fate, or of others to penetrate it.

Anomalisa and 45 Years are both ninety minutes long, and yet they contain more substance, are more pregnant with ideas and feelings, than most novels, and resonate for days.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.