Cold Comfort

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson (directors). Anomalisa. 2015.
Andrew Haigh (director). 45 Years. 2015.

In the climactic scenes of both Anomalisa and 45 Years—the latest films by, respectively, the American writer-director Charlie Kaufman and the British filmmaker Andrew Haigh—an aging man stakes his future on a single speech. In both cases, it’s a speech he’s been preparing for since the start of the compressed period the movie covers. (Anomalisa, a digitally-enhanced puppet film that Kaufman codirected with the stop-motion animator Duke Johnson, takes place over twenty-four hours; 45 Years takes place over six days.) Again in the case of both films, the speech in question requires the man to endorse a set of values and commitments to which he’s recently been unfaithful.

Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), the male protagonist of 45 Years, is a retired factory manager whose forty-fifth anniversary party takes place days after he’s had to admit to his wife that his commitment to a previous girlfriend went deeper than he has ever given her reason to think. Anomalisa centers on another man whose marriage suffers a sudden breach. A corporate self-help author, British-born but based in LA, Michael Stone has made a small fortune advising customer-service representatives to interact with each of their customers as unique individuals. And yet, in one of the movie’s perhaps overdetermined ironies, he’s literally incapable himself of distinguishing between any of the people in his orbit, all of whom, even his most intimate relatives, he hears as speaking in different registers of the same bland, professional male voice (that of the actor Tom Noonan). Spending one night in 2006 in a Cincinnati hotel before giving a lecture, he falls, disastrously, for a guileless Akron-based saleswoman whose distinctive voice he’s somehow able to hear.

There have been surprisingly few recent English-language films about infidelity, at least once you exclude movies that treat the subject as little more than a secret for characters to hide and reveal, a temptation for them to resist, or a sin for which they’re obliged to atone. It’s striking to see two films that consider their characters’ romantic betrayals so quietly and reflectively, with so little moralizing. That they arrive at very different conclusions—about what it means to be unfaithful, about how much strain a relationship can take, and about the extent to which committed relationships between people are, in the end, possible—suggests how many dramatic possibilities infidelity can give a filmmaker when it’s treated with seriousness and care. It also suggests a good deal about Haigh and Kaufman’s relative degrees of comfort with the kinds of grown-up, advanced-age relationships they’ve chosen to depict.

Kaufman and two of the filmmakers for whom he’s written screenplays—Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry—preside over a small but popular patch of cinematic territory: films about middle-class men struggling to curb their own solipsism. Stylistically, these three directors’ movies are surprisingly conventional; watching their films, it’s rare to be struck by the movement of a shot or an arrangement of bodies in a frame. Instead, their movies depend on a constant influx of oddball set pieces. They skip from one fanciful conceit to the next, and their success rests on finding imaginative visual metaphors for their protagonists’ emotional withdrawal. These range from the eerie and inspired (John Malkovich, in the Kaufman-Jonze collaboration that bears his name, running through a restaurant in which all the patrons have his own face) to the cloying (many of Joaquin Phoenix’s mopey displays in Jonze’s Her, on which Kaufman wisely didn’t work).

Kaufman’s own films could never be taken for cloying or precious; their tone is too dour, their pacing too clotted, their picture of human relationships too consistently grim. Like the middle-aged theater director at the center of Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s first feature, Anomalisa’s Michael Stone enters his film in the same mood in which he leaves it: sullen, embittered, and chronically allergic to human contact. (He is voiced by David Thewlis, the British actor best known for his performance as a ferociously articulate, misanthropic drifter in Mike Leigh’s Naked.) Nearly the only spaces Kaufman gives him to inhabit are a plane cabin, a taxi (where his insipid driver insists he try Cincinnati’s famous chili), and the luxury hotel where he’s greeted in a chorus of obsequious variations on Noonan’s voice. Unlike the whimsically detailed sets in, for instance, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)—another recent stop-motion puppet film by a prominent oddball American filmmaker—Anomalisa’s interiors are not only sleek and antiseptic but also somehow insubstantial. It’s as if, in the world Kaufman has designed to reflect his central character’s mental state, lived-in spaces have been replaced by digital renderings of hotel rooms and lobbies not yet built.

Kaufman and Johnson have, in other words, designed the world of Anomalisa to reflect what it looks like to move through life as Michael Stone does, insensitive to even the widest variations in human personality, attitude, and tone. To feel this way is a pathology, the movie keeps insisting, not a form of insight or wisdom. “Something’s wrong with me!” Michael blurts out, early in the film, to a confused ex he has invited to the hotel bar for a disastrous reunion, and Anomalisa gives no evidence to the contrary. (The hotel itself—“The Fregoli”—is named after a rare psychological disorder whose sufferers believe that all people are, in fact, only one shape-shifting entity.) What’s unsettling about the movie is the extent to which its makers seem committed to reproducing every aspect of Michael’s specific type of solipsism: every irritating mechanical background noise is magnified, every crass advertisement in the hotel and its surrounding streets disdainfully lingered on, every environment purged of arresting or peculiar detail, every person dull. One way to read Anomalisa is as an allegory for clinical depression, for which there’s some evidence: one of the first things Michael does in the film is pop a pill from a prescription jar. But “solipsism” is the better word for the quality Michael embodies, and which he shares with the central characters in Being John Malkovich and Her—an inability to recognize other people as people, with their own interests and inner lives.

In Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kaufman and Johnson have imagined a person maximally susceptible to Michael’s limited charms. It must have occurred to Kaufman that Michael’s way of moving through the world, however philosophically disturbing it might be, is also dramatically inert. For a movie centered on such a character not to become stultifying, Kaufman must have realized, Michael’s sensibility would have to be contrasted with that of someone as simple-minded as he is intelligent, as good-natured as he is prickly, as humble as he is arrogant, and as fundamentally optimistic as he is hopeless. When he instantly falls in love with Lisa, enraptured by the unnameable quality her voice represents, the film’s dramatic possibilities open up.

And yet watching the long scene on which the film turns, a slow, tentative romantic encounter between the two characters in Michael’s hotel room, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lisa is less a fully-realized character than a woman designed to be vulnerable to this man to the greatest possible extent. The sum of facts we learn about her—that she’s terribly insecure about the cluster of scar tissue around her right eye, that she hasn’t been with a man in eight years, that she read Michael’s book with a dictionary to improve her limited vocabulary, that she’s delighted by the “little-known fact” that they speak Portuguese in Brazil, that she loves the word “anomaly” because she feels like one—makes her seem almost unbelievably pitiful. It is as if, by giving her such a long list of deficiencies, Kaufman and Johnson meant to signal that Lisa’s consciousness isn’t interesting, deep, or unusual enough to justify letting the film diverge from Michael’s point of view and drift into hers. She comes off as a convenient device: pathetic enough to generate sympathy but simple enough not to threaten Michael as the film’s center of attention.

The long sequence in which a besotted Michael detaches Lisa from her more conventionally attractive friend (they’re staying three doors down from him to hear his talk the next day), serves her a drink, and slowly gains her trust is practically a short film within Anomalisa, and it’s thrilling in precisely the way the rest of the movie is not: it leaves it uncertain what, exactly, will take place between these people. Will Lisa finish the half-whispered a capella rendition of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”—her favorite song—that Michael coaxes from her? (She does, continuing even after his initial outburst of thanks.) Will they have sex? (They do, with a level of tenderness, clumsiness, and explicitness rarely awarded sex scenes in live-action films.) Will he leave his wife for her? She accepts his promise to stay with her after only a moment of uneasy hesitation (“I don’t want to break up a family!”). They start making plans together, and they stop only when, over breakfast the next morning, his stalled pathologies reemerge.

It’s the movie’s most wrenching moment when Michael abruptly turns on Lisa, having heard Noonan’s voice start creeping into hers, and it makes one slightly queasy about all the foregoing material. That the emotionally complicated relationship we’ve just seen develop was, in fact, fated to be another casualty of Michael’s solipsism is not just an upsetting outcome; it’s a palpably less interesting one than many of its alternatives. We’re again trapped in the consciousness of a character for whom most adult ways of coexisting with other people are not live options—and because they are not live options for him, they’re likewise not dramatic possibilities for the movie he inhabits.

On the day of the conference, Michael breaks down onstage during his speech, with bleary-eyed ravings about his personal life and incoherent rants about the war on terror. (It’s never been suggested previously that he had political views of any kind.) His spectacular failure is the only way for Anomalisa to stay dramatically alive now that the possibilities that earlier opened up for the movie have been closed off by the film’s need to follow the logic of its hero’s insulated state of mind—and his resulting inability to deal with adult relationships—as far as it can possibly go.

Michael’s wife doesn’t appear in Anomalisa until the movie’s last scene, a grim homecoming that further deepens the character’s isolation. In contrast, Kate Mercer, the spurned wife in 45 Years, occupies the place in Haigh’s film that Lisa does in Johnson and Kaufman’s: the injured woman whose intellect and sensibility give the movie its emotional life. Like Anomalisa, 45 Years spends much of its run time tracking the interactions of a single couple in a single interior space as they work out the consequences of an infidelity. Kate, however—played by Charlotte Rampling with a frightening level of emotional commitment—is wise in just the same respects in which Lisa is naïve. Her responses are as unfixed as the other film’s heroine’s are pitifully predictable; her mind is as supple as Lisa’s is limited. She is, in other words, a full-formed fictional creation, and her presence in the movie multiplies the possible paths down which it can go.

45 Years, which Haigh adapted loosely from David Constantine’s 2014 short story “In Another Country,” opens on a Monday morning, less than a week before Geoff and Kate’s forty-fifth-anniversary party. (His bypass surgery five years earlier overshadowed what would have been their fortieth.) A letter in German has made its way to the couple’s tranquil English country house, where they’ve lived ever since she retired from her job as a schoolteacher and he from his position as a factory manager. When he scans the note, she sees his expression change. “They found her,” he tells her cryptically. “She,” we learn, is his former German girlfriend Katya, with whom he had an intense relationship at 25. Six weeks into their adventuresome vacation in the Swiss Alps, Geoff had told Kate many years ago, Katya slipped through a rocky crevice and fell to her death. Now, he reports, her body has been found ghoulishly preserved deep within a melting glacier.

Geoff’s imagination takes a morbid, apocalyptic turn. After receiving the letter, he digs out old photographs of Katya and replays a record that, as Kate reminds him, he hasn’t listened to in years. The next day, he takes out library books about global warming, which lead him to imagine what will happen when the glacier melts enough to dislodge his former lover’s body into the then-flooded Swiss villages below. The couple’s longtime friends in town suddenly leave him cold. He starts smoking again. Watching him, Kate slides from sympathy to worry to jealous concern. How is it that this woman means so much to him now? Were his affections for Katya so strong that they could survive forty-five years of marriage? Geoff’s confession that he and Katya had pretended to be married to guarantee themselves shelter on the road stuns her, as if by choosing not to tell her he had let the fake marriage continue into their official one. “I think I would have remembered if my husband was another woman’s next of kin,” she snaps at him when he acts as if he’d volunteered the news years before. “Well,” he answers weakly, “it’s not the kind of thing one tells one’s beautiful new wife, is it?”

Kate and Geoff’s is a recognizably adult relationship, a precarious partnership between two people with diverging goals and tastes. One of the movie’s accomplishments is the way their shared past makes itself felt as an accumulation of details: the songs they replay (“Tell It Like It Is” by Aaron Neville, Lee Hazlewood’s “My Autumn’s Done Come,” Lloyd Price’s rendition of “Stagger Lee”); the tasteful, unfussy decor in their house; the books crowded around them. She shares his left-wing convictions with slightly less zeal. (A female friend reminds her that Geoff once called the woman a fascist for admitting that, in her view, “Thatcher hadn’t done a terrible job of it.”) They still enjoy a semblance of a sexual life; the strained lovemaking scene between them midway through the film is as strikingly unglamorous and graceless as the one at the midpoint of Anomalisa. We have good reason to think that this couple’s shared existence is somehow theirs, the product of their collaborative choices—precisely the kind of relationship of which someone like the hero of Anomalisa wouldn’t be capable.

The awful thought Kate now has to entertain is that it was Katya, not her, who determined the shape her marriage took. What had seemed like real choices were, in a sense, rigged—decided by Geoff’s appeal to a history in which she didn’t play a part. The smell in their house is Katya’s perfume; even Kate’s name, one imagines her thinking, rings uncannily with the other woman’s. “Would you have married her?” Kate asks Geoff, forty-eight hours before the party. “Yes,” he says. The full implications of Kate’s gradual epiphany only become clear late in the film, when she makes an awful discovery as she flits through the projector slides Geoff kept of his and Katya’s final weeks together.

If Anomalisa is about a figure who rules out the possibility that other people could alter the course of his life, 45 Years is about what happens when people do entrust their lives to one another, and the consequences of discovering that the person to whom you’ve entrusted your life might not have entrusted his as fully, or as consistently, to you. (It’s worth noting that Greek Pete and Weekend, Haigh’s first two features, were studies of relationships between gay men, as was his HBO series Looking. Compared to many other filmmakers, he may be burdened with fewer optimistic assumptions about the long-term stability of the kind of conventional straight marriage his new movie depicts.)

Kate’s realization that she’s been making choices based on false or incomplete assumptions opens up a new set of decisions for her, and another set of options for the movie to explore. In his climactic speech, Geoff raises the possibility that people use up their limited stock of major choices as they age, and that it’s for this reason that “the choices that we make when we’re young turn out to be pretty bloody important.” It’s emblematic of the contrast between 45 Years and Anomalisa that, whereas Michael’s speech is clearly a disaster from the start, it’s never entirely clear whether Geoff’s halting, unscripted toast is a sufficient self-defense. But even if it is, it’s wrong in at least one important respect: the characters at the center of 45 Years leave the film with more—and more difficult—choices than the ones with which they entered it.

There is neither a speech nor a party in Constantine’s original story, in which the central characters are still older and the Katya episode still further in the past. “Mrs. Mercer,” as she’s identified in the story, reacts to the change in her husband meekly and simple-mindedly. “All she wanted,” the narrator says of her, “was to be able to say it hadn’t been nothing, it hasn’t been a waste of time, the fifty years,” even if the marriage hadn’t produced anything “as substantial as a child.” It’s Mr. Mercer on whom the story centers: his inability to keep his razor steady the day he hears the news, his memory of the “sweet unimaginable shock of the simple sight of [Katya] the first time without her clothes,” the trip he makes to see her body, during which a neighbor finds him standing outside and tries “to get through to what [is] still alive in him in there behind his glasses and the glaze of tears.” Grief has cauterized him, much as solipsism has insulated Michael in Anomalisa, and the story keeps within his narrow perspective almost as completely as Kaufman and Johnson’s film stays inside that of its hero.

Haigh’s film ends, in contrast, on Kate. She’s just finished her first dance with Geoff, which they’ve scored to the song that played at their wedding (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”). It’s clear, as the camera lingers on her, that she’s contemplating as “bloody important” a set of choices as any she’s yet made. The act of emotional infidelity at the center of 45 Years forces Kate to doubt every respect in which she and Geoff recognized each other as individuals, every gesture of vulnerability or openness they exchanged, and every adaptation they each made to reconcile themselves to a shared life. If the act of literal infidelity at the center of Anomalisa rarely seems to have the same effect, it’s because Kaufman and Johnson’s film never acknowledges that a relationship could be sustained and revised in the way Kate and Geoff’s is supposed to be. When Michael betrays his ex, his wife, and Lisa in turn, he’s simply acting as anyone with his set of psychological complexes could be expected to act; his infidelities don’t generates the kind of choices Kate has to contemplate at the end of Haigh’s movie. That such choices never stop presenting themselves over the course of a life, and that they have to be faced with courage and independence, is the kind of worldly, grownup thought that 45 Years embraces and Anomalisa avoids. It’s a mark of the wisdom of Haigh’s film that, like the partners in a candid relationship, it can face that thought when crises come.

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