Because of malnutrition, dehydration, sleep deprivation, poor hygiene but most influentially seeing way, way too many movies, I have been diagnosed with festival fog. Feeling as though there is an inescapable haze over your memory and intellect, everything melds together into a generic soup of impressions.
Even though my routine is fresh, there is still a repetitive quality to it all. Wake up. Shower. Line up. Watch a movie. Lunch. Line up. Movie. Etc.. The new film from Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa (10/10), is about life’s tediousness: the constant struggle to open a hotel door, the nuisance of generic interactions with strangers, and love found but quickly lost.
Slowly tracking Michael, a motivational speaker who talks at conferences for customer service workers, the film moves with the levity, slowness and heartbreak of Lost In Translation but with inventive surreality. When Michael arrives in a luxurious hotel to do a talk the following day, every person he encounters has exactly the same face and generic male voice regardless of whether they’re male or female. After quickly chatting with his wife and son, Michael fails to reconnect with an old girlfriend and decides to get drunk. But then there she is: Lisa, someone new, different, an anomaly with a unique face and a distinct female voice.
Not surprisingly, Anomalisa has no distributor. The commercial prospects of a droll stop-motion film with a slow pace and cerebral tone are slight, but Kaufman, who wrote some of the best movies of the last decade, is deeply observant and attune to Michael’s loneliness and alienation. Although smaller in scope than Synechdoche, New York, his last opus, Anomalisa is still brutally effective, finding the yearning in awkward exchanges and subtle details.
Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson have crafted an animated aesthetic that hinges between Michael’s subjectivity and a somber realism. From the opening shot of a plane to the cityscape backdrops, many instances are sedate and realistic, but by working with animation the directors are free from the constraints of live-action cinematography. They create a world that consistently reflects our own but with subtle quirks, like how the characters faces move mechanistically, as though they are merely programmed to act in certain ways.
So far Anomalisa has been an anomaly in a festival full of disappointments. No hidden gems have emerged and the films which have been well-received were already expected to be. One of these confounding, potential disappointments is a masterclass Taiwanese filmmakers Cannes favorite. Hsiao-hsien Hou’s The Assassin (5/10) marks his first departure into the realm of the wuxia genre. Don’t worry, though, there may be a handful of action set-pieces but Hou still hasn’t made a martial arts flick in any traditional sense.
At some point I gave up trying to figure out the relationship between the ensemble of characters and put the festival fog to good work by allowing the film’s impressionistic style and rapturous imagery to flow through me. The central conflict is a simple one – an assassin in 6th century China seeks to kill a man for old wrongs. What’s difficult to follow is the context in which that occurs. With next to no exposition and assemblages of scenes that are stitched together with no clear indication of how they’re linked, many were frustrated by The Assassin’s laborious pace. Two men in front of me sat through the entire film but only because they wanted to count how many people walked out. Apparently there were 28.
This is about as surprising as anything in the film, which is to say not at all. Although there are gorgeous images to behold, through mise-en-scène, with predominantly golden and red hues, the emotion, story, and themes are beyond elusive. One crucial distinction between an art film and a mainstream one is that the art film refuses to do the work for you. Popcorn flicks are often a simplistic one-sided dialogue between the movie and the audience. For an art film, the filmmaker and audience must meet somewhere in the middle. The Assassin, embodies every connotation of the word: slow, elitist and maybe a little pretentious. It’s a dialogue between filmmaker and audience in which the director continues to back away, refusing to explain or engage with any ideas or relatable emotion.
Festival films like The Assassin make simplistic trifles like Maggie’s Plan (6.5/10) such a treasure. In the vein of Woody Allen, Rebecca Miller directs this relatively funny rom-com with an amazing cast that includes Ethan Hawke, Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore. Gerwig reprises a role similar to her character in the considerably more thoughtful Mistress America as another self-absorbed narcissist.
Maggie is single and can’t hold onto a relationship for more than a few months, so when she wants to have a child she seeks out a weirdo acquaintance with a sperm donor. When Maggie begins to fall for John after meeting him at work, the two have an affair which leads to a divorce between John and his wife Georgette. When Maggie and John are married and have a child together a few years later, she begins to become more and more dissatisfied as she plans to reunite Georgette and John so she can be alone again.
The dialogue, which is heavy on wordplay and parodying of intellectual pretentions, works well enough to entertain, but it lacks subtle characterization and bite. The actors try their best to elevate the simple material, especially Julianne Moore who has one of the most ridiculous Eastern European accents I’ve heard in a film. Weak editing and lame cinematography squander some of the sight gags, but in a day with two heady art films and a festival that has been burdened with disappointments, I’ll take a moderate success where I get to see actors I like doing things that are modestly funny. At least it helps to lift the fog instead of adding another layer of cloud to my already bewildered mind.
Tomorrow: High-Rise, Equals, Evolution