by Donna Peberdy, Southampton Solent University, UK.
Based on a 2005 ‘sound play’, Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson 2015) is a stop motion puppet animation about a British self-help author who specialises in customer services yet struggles to make meaningful connections with other people. Inspired by a disorder called the Fregoli delusion, Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) sees everyone he meets as the same person (all voiced by Tom Noonan), which compounds his banal daily existence. At a conference, he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is immediately captivated by her physical and vocal differentness. In a world where everyone looks and sounds the same, Lisa is an anomaly: Anomalisa. Michael treats Lisa and her friend to some drinks before Michael and Lisa go back to Michael’s hotel room for a nightcap. Lisa reveals she has very low self-esteem and that it has been eight years since she was last intimate with someone, before Michael begins to kiss her and they have sex.
Described by numerous reviewers as the most realistic sex scene of 2015, The Spectator’s Deborah Ross even went so far as to declare ‘I wish all my sex to be puppet sex from now on’. I would suggest that the effectiveness of the scene is the result of the interaction between multiple layers of performance in the film: the performance of sex as played out by the characters of Michael and Lisa; the sex act crafted by the animators; the capturing of the performance of sex by the cinematography and lighting; and the vocal performance of sex by Leigh and Thewlis as the voice artists. All are informed by the presence, pursuit and performance of awkwardness, which becomes a crucial, defining quality of the sex act.
The cinematography and framing play on the potential for awkwardness of the sex scene. The sex scene is around 6 minutes of the 17 minute hotel room scene, shot as continuous real-time. This already sets it apart from most sex scenes in mainstream cinema, which use fast cutting and close-ups of ecstasy-ridden facial expressions to capture the passion and immediacy of the sexual exchange, or they cut away from the ‘action’ entirely. Side-on mid shots and close-ups of Lisa and Michael’s faces distinguish the coupling from the over-the-bed ‘clinical observation’ that Jeffrey Sconce has suggested results from the static tableau of ‘smart’ cinema, creating intimacy rather than detachment.  With the camera then keeping a distance, we are asked to fully watch the sexual moment, to pay attention to their fleshy, average bodies, their fumbling, earnest movements and their, at first, self-conscious and then uncontainable sounds.
Awkwardness is central to the construction and performance of the sex scene. Recorded prior to the filming of the animation, Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan’s vocal performance became part of the process around which the animation was constructed. Referring to the sex scene in particular, Leigh revealed in one interview:
‘It was probably the most intimate, the most awkward and uncomfortable sex scene I have ever done […] We had nothing to hide behind. You feel so naked when it’s just your voice’.
This is a particularly powerful admission coming from the actor whose character was gang raped in Last Exit to Brooklyn (Uli Edel 1989). When discussing their experience of filming a sex scene, a common narrative with many actors is how the presence of the camera strips away any sense of intimacy, that the constructedness of the sex scene means the actors are hyper aware of their position as actors. Leigh’s comment departs from this, revealing the vulnerability of the performance of sex and, crucially, its relationship with sound.
The performance of sex sounds – Leigh’s in particular – have an additional function here. Michael’s request for Lisa to ‘make some noises, like moaning or something’ directly calls attention to the sound of Lisa’s voice. For Michael, it is an extension of his aural desire for Lisa; for the audience, it creates a heightened awareness of the part sound plays in playing out desire, what Alison Landsberg refers to as the ‘aural visceral’.  While contrived at first, Lisa’s moans deepen and extend as she relaxes into the moment. Of course, as a vocal performance by Leigh, all the sounds are performed – Leigh, then, has the challenge of modulating her breathing and moaning as Lisa gradually moves from self-conscious awareness to pleasure and ecstasy until finally climaxing. The awkward self-consciousness felt by Lisa is accentuated by the knowledge of the actor’s own self-consciousness in her vocal performance. Awkwardness is also achieved in the moments of humanity that threaten to rupture the tempo of the lovemaking: Lisa’s ticklish spot, Michael lying on her hair, Lisa’s shyness about oral sex, or banging her head on the headboard. These are moments to be managed and contained so they do not disrupt the overall connection. Lisa articulates her sexual inexperience yet their first sexual encounter together means they are both amateurs and Lisa’s directions to Michael in fact suggest an innate sexual confidence about what she likes, questioning her perception of self.
The animators play a crucial role in crafting the performance and capturing the awkwardness of the vocal performance and the characters. The filmmakers mentioned in numerous interviews their awareness of getting the ‘tone’ right in constructing the sequence in order to distinguish the sex from the puppet sex scene in Team America: World Police (Trey Parker 2004). The lingering camera’s emphasis on the full sexual encounter is amplified by the fact that we are watching stop motion animation; as Michael and Lisa are naked and exposed, so is the craft of the animation and we are asked to consider the vast time and effort that has gone into creating the scene. The scene is the result of six months of research, testing, choreography, blocking and staging, with characters based on human models, their actions informed by the study of real actors and applied to silicone puppets made to the same scale as a Barbie doll.
Replacement animation was used for the faces, using 3D prints to create emotional change across a range of expressions. In order to achieve realism in terms of movement and effect, the animators put themselves in the position of the characters in order to feel their awkwardness. Co-director Duke Johnson noted: ‘It was like, “How does this work? […] What would you do?” It was a lot of talking and feeling it out in your own body and putting yourself in the characters’ minds and thinking how they feel awkward’. In Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, Kenneth Gross considers the goal of the puppeteer’s hand is to give ‘itself over to the demands of the object’.  The animators’ here become more than manipulators; in crafting a performance, the animators must also become the characters. With stop motion, the puppeteer’s ‘hands’ are not visible in the seen performance, there are no strings, yet the outcome of their hands is palpably visible in the end result.
Anomalisa’s sex scene confirms the film’s distinct differentness from the mainstream. While the film very much conforms to previous considerations of ‘smart’ cinema in its foregrounding of what Jeffrey Sconce calls ‘dispassion, disengagement and disinterest’, the sex scene becomes the space for authentic and honest connections that appear impossible across its wider narrative. Rather than perverse sex (something a film like Todd Solondz’s Happiness (2008) revels in), this is sex that rejects the conventional and embraces difference in order to heighten sexual intimacy, investment and interest. Shared pleasure is important here but female sexual pleasure is emphasised in particular, a sexual pleasure that foregrounds the voice and the cerebral and reconfigures the tactile. Indeed, while sex on screen, as Linda Williams notes, is always a ‘constructed, mediated, performed act’, this is fully realised in Anomalisa with the silicone puppets intricately and intimately crafted in painstaking detail by animators, who are striving to create a realistic sexual encounter between inanimate objects by projecting themselves onto the characters.  Good sex as depicted in Anomalisa is sex that goes beyond the physical; it is tender, sensual, sensory and connected, achievable even for the social misfits of smart cinema.
 Jeffrey Sconce. 2002. ‘Irony, Nihilism and the New American “Smart” Film’. Screen 43 (4).
 Alison Landsberg. 2010. ‘Waking the Deadwood of History: Listening, Language and the Aural Visceral’. Rethinking History 14 (4).
 Kenneth Gross. 2011. Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
 Linda Williams. 2008. Screening Sex. Durham, NC.: Duke University Press.
This article is an excerpt of a talk delivered at Lux Cinema, Nijmegen on 20th April 2017 as part of a symposium on ‘Mapping the Quirky’ hosted by the Radboud Honours Academy. The talk was titled ‘Portals, Phones and Puppetry: In Search of Good Sex in Smart Cinema’ and also considered the sex scenes in Being John Malkovich (1999) and Her (2013).
Donna Peberdy is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Southampton Solent University. She is the author of Masculinity and Film Performance: Male Angst in Contemporary American Cinema (2011), co-editor of Tainted Love: Screening Sexual Perversion (2017) and co-curator at Screening Sex. Donna has written about acting and performance in contemporary US film and television, film noir, transnational cinema, voice and vocal performance, the performance of sex and sexuality, bipolar masculinity and celebrity autoerotic asphyxiation. She is particularly interested in the relationship between screen acting and the performance of identity. Donna also blogs from time to time at Improv: Reflections on Screen Acting and Performance.