‘We’d​ all be human if we could,’ a sinister character sings in The Threepenny Opera. His hypocrisy is unmistakable, but the ironic implication may also be right. We don’t all want to be human, even if it’s possible. We have other ambitions. Still, the relevant characters in the singer’s world and in ours are human in the standard, technical sense, even if some are fictional.

What happens when man-made creatures express the same aspiration, without any sort of irony in range? The event occurs quite often in graphic novels and Gothic tales, and the pathos relies on a fairly secure distinction: these figures want to be human but can’t, we are human but don’t behave as if we were. But then sometimes the distinction collapses, or is displaced, as in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion film Anomalisa, based on a play Kaufman wrote in 2005. When Michael Stone, the author of a bestselling book about improving human relations in business, has a psychological meltdown, we don’t quite know what sort of mind he is supposed to have, because he and everyone else in his world is a doll; the whole population is represented by stiff-limbed, mask-wearing puppets with disproportionately sized heads. Would they be human if they could? Are they human enough already?

The masks are especially important because they display rather than disguise an aspect of the film’s creation. In so-called replacement animation, you make different face parts and shoot them a frame at a time, putting sequences together to create the illusion of movement. You then erase the differences between the face parts. In this case the differences were kept, in the form of a clear line of division between the upper and lower parts of the face. We cannot at any point think these masks are anything other than masks. ‘We liked the quality,’ Kaufman said, ‘a fragileness and broken quality.’ This is certainly what comes across when the lower half of Stone’s mask falls off, and we see an expanse of clay-like material with a round hole in the middle of it. He picks up his half-mask and puts it on again, restored to whatever reality he is supposed to represent.

But the line between the upper and lower faces does something else. It makes us wonder why the creatures are wearing masks, why a whole species would seem to have something to hide. The apparent theme of the movie suggests they might be hiding the fact that they are all the same; but of course the masks reinforce this effect rather than reduce it. Much of the dialogue and imagery does the same. Stone is in Cincinnati to talk about his book, and people and posters all talk about the zoo and the famous local chilli. At one point Stone feels that everyone else, except himself and Lisa, a woman he has met in his hotel, is the same (‘Everyone is one person but you and me’), a theory brilliantly supported by the fact that everyone else, including Stone’s wife and friends, an old flame, the hotel manager, a taxi-driver, various waiters and many others, has only one voice, that of Tom Noonan. Within the story the theory is wrong, the scenario of a dream from which Stone awakes, but points in the right direction, like the song in The Threepenny Opera. The others are not just one person, they are as different from each other as Stone himself is from them: not much. They’re all made by the same studio and in the same style. The hotel, incidentally, is called the Fregoli, mispronounced in various ways by characters in the movie – a touching sign of independent existence when we get (as I didn’t at first) the glance at the Fregoli delusion, in which difference vanishes into the idea that other people are just one person.

There are really two films in Anomalisa, and our awareness of the masks and movements of the dolls plays a part in both. One is Stone’s film, the one he would make if he were the writer and director. It is about anomie rather than anomalies, and concerns a sad, sensitive fellow at a crucial point in his life. He is bored by his marriage, remote from his son, tired of his book and fame, and feels he is losing everything and everyone. ‘I think I might have psychological problems,’ he says, but of course he has no means of consulting his programmer. He sees an old girlfriend, whom he abandoned 11 years ago – we saw him reading an angry note from her on the plane, so she’s on his mind, and she lives in Cincinnati – but only bewilderment comes of the encounter.

Then the miracle happens. He meets Lisa, who is so ordinary she seems real, and who, like him, has a voice of her own. In her case it’s that of Jennifer Jason Leigh, in his it’s David Thewlis, Lancashire accent and all. Lisa loves Cyndi Lauper, offers a plausible rendering of one her songs (‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’), and is generally so original in her sweetness and modesty that Stone, all but deadened by the repetitive behaviours around him, can’t resist her. After a sex scene that would feel long with skilful humans and feels twice as long with awkward dolls – the ‘broken quality’ the directors are after, perhaps, where ‘broken’ means stumbling – both characters sleep, and over breakfast Stone declares his new resolution. He will leave his marriage and run away with Lisa. She says yes, and almost at once, after a few feeble attempts at looking happy, he begins to find fault with her. She clicks her fork against her teeth when she eats, she talks with her mouth full, she starts telling him what to do, and worst of all, another voice, Noonan’s voice, begins to speak in unison with hers. She’s not so different after all, she’s also part of the world he thought he could leave. So he goes home to his sad marriage, glumly wondering why all this is happening to him. Or why nothing ever happens to him. In this film, the one puppet who thinks he is human, an exception to a hideously monotonous rule, learns once again that nothing is going to change. Of course he knew this, he had only to look at his sectioned face in the mirror. But how brave of him to try to resist destiny, especially since it takes the form of his own computer-designed personality.

The other film might have been made by Lisa if she knew how to make movies and were a good deal meaner than she is. In this one there is no mystery about Stone’s behaviour. He couldn’t make a commitment to his old flame for the same reason he can’t commit to his marriage – or anything else but his own self-absorption. The eternal sameness of everyone else is not a fact of this film’s life but a projection of Stone’s defence against experience; of his unacknowledged clinging to a lonely male stereotype. Lisa is an exception, an Anomalisa as Stone puts it, and for a while he believes he has escaped into a world where differentiated people exist, or where at least one other such person exists. But it doesn’t last, not because Lisa fails him but because he doesn’t want to escape, because he prefers his protective misery to the risks of a new life, and so takes shelter in the conventionality he pretends to find so tiresome. He doesn’t understand any of this, and so feels entitled to his sadness and sense of superiority, and in this film our awareness that he is after all a doll among other dolls makes him seem deluded rather than aspiring, a man who can’t see that differences matter more where differences are small.

Making his speech to a large audience, Stone has a sort of breakdown, and joins the chorus of bots wondering about humanity. ‘What is it to be human?’ he asks. ‘What is it to ache?’ If to ache is human (and to feel fit is divine) Stone is doing pretty well; but is this enough? At the end of the movie Stone reads a friendly note from Lisa telling him she had a good time, and has looked up the word ‘anomalisa’ in her Japanese dictionary. It means ‘goddess of the sun’. He still doesn’t know what he’s missed.

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