Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion/puppet film is an anomaly; it might be a romance, it might be an anti-romance, it might be a plea for equal rights for sex-toys. David Thewlis voices Michael, a jaded family man who falls in love with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) during a convention he’s speaking at in the Fregoli hotel. It’s her voice that first attracts Michael, not surprising when every other character, male or female, is voiced by Tom Noonan. Michael and Lisa’s one-night stand is captured in granular detail, and Kaufmann ingeniously uses puppets to make their bedroom scenes non-exploitative. Whether it’s a portrait of a man incapable of love, or a valentine to the transitory nature of love itself, Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s film is very much up for interpretation, as is as sub-plot where Michael buys a sex-toy and presents it to his family on his return home. Whatever it means, Anomalisa is imaginative, brilliantly executed and heartbreakingly sad.
Spike Jonze fashioned a surprisingly empathetic tone-poem to technology with his 2013 romance, with Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a writer who finds himself falling in love with the operating system of his mobile phone. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha reads his email, promotes his work and seems more in tune with Theodore than his dates (Olivia Wilde), his ex (Rooney Mara) or the girl next door (Amy Adams). But digital love is hard to consummate, and Theodore and Samantha face many of the same problems as any long distance relationship; lacking physicality in each other’s world, they struggle to maintain their connection. Jonze uses real locations to suggest the near future, and the technology looks highly viable; while much of the film is just Theodore talking to himself, Phoenix pulls off a gently comic performance. And Johansson’s voice is perfect; it’s hard to imaging how this would have played if they’d retained Samantha Morton in the role. Her is a delicate, melancholy film, but one that relates to a time when communication is everywhere, but the users of the technology feel more alone than ever.
Ian McEwan’s work has produced variable results in terms of big screen adaptations; while Enduring Love worked well, The Innocent’s meagre drama belied the talent involved. Christopher Hampton fared much better with this adaptation for director Joe Wright; with capable leads from Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, Atonement is a love story that reaches far beyond a conventional narrative. Sairiose Ronan sprang to fame as Briony, the younger sister of Cecilia (Knightley), who has embarked on a passionate romance with aspiring doctor Robbie (McAvoy); sisterly jealousy causes her to push the lovers apart. Robbie goes off to WWII, but nothing can keep the lovers apart. Atonement deals with war and grief is a strikingly romantic way, juxtaposing the sparkling veneer of English country house life with the horrors of war, beautifully visualised by Wright in an astonishing shot involving a big wheel on a beach. A final interview-based coda, featuring Vanessa Redgrave and the late Anthony Minghella, makes Atonement’s meaning crystal clear; love conquers all, if not in the way the lovers might hope.
A notably entry in the minor sub-genre of time travelling romance, Somewhere in Time is written by Richard Matheson and displays his usual respect for genre tropes. Christopher Reeve is writer Richard who becomes fascinated with a picture in an old hotel; he travels back in time via self-hypnosis to romance Elise (Jane Seymour) in 1912, and set in motion an impossible romance. Somewhere between Chris Marker’s sublime La Jetee and The Time Traveller’s Wife, Jeannot Szwarzc’s film in an unashamed weepie, well played and with a sumptuous John Barry score. William H Macy makes his debut here.
The perennially underused Jennifer Garner gets a showcase for her acting (and dancing) skills in Gary Winick’s engaging fantasy, peppered with neat cultural references and gags. Garner plays Jenna, who makes a wish on her 13th birthday, and awakens to find that she’s a 30 year old woman. He life appears complete, but she’s haunted by the idea that she’s missed something, and tracks down her old boyfriend Matt (Mark Ruffalo) in an effort to see what she might have missed. Most actresses struggle with physical comedy; garner takes to it like a duck to water, artfully suggesting a child’s mentality in an adult body. Ruffalo is a perfect foil; the scene in which they dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller is something of a delight to behold.
Jules Dassin was a master director (Rififi, The Naked City, Topkapi), and combining him with a major star (Richard Burton) and an up-and-coming starlet (Tatum O’Neal) for a meditation of life and love must have seemed like a great idea. Circle of Two, however, is a misfire of such spectacular proportions that it ends up as near comic genius. Burton plays Ashley St Clair, a painter in his sixties who shuns the canvas for afternoons watching sex-film at his local cinema. Amongst the patrons is Sarah Norton (O’Neal) who is keen to get away from her overprotective family and her stalker boyfriend, and hopes to fashion a romantic idyll with St Clair. Dassin clearly understands that a relationship between a 15 year old and a 60 year old has exploitation potential, even if the connection is chaste and not sexual, and plays in the direction of good taste, washing Circle of Two in glutinous photography, lush music and dialogue that aims to demystify the artistic process but instead provides comic delight in it’s literary floweriness; the monumentally awful ‘Ach, said Bach’ recurring line of dialogue will haunt impressionable audiences forever.
Almost certainly the last great film from writer Bernardo Bertolucci, Besieged is a far more modest affair than The Last Emperor, with the action largely confined to a beautiful Italian apartment in Rome. Shandurai (Thandi Newton) moves in, and becomes the object of the affections of British composer and pianist Kinsky (David Thewlis), but she rejects his advances. She’s more concerned about her African husband, who has been jailed by a dictator. Kinsky begins to release that his love for Shandurai goes beyond physical attraction, and attempts to change her mind about him with a grand gesture. Besieged is a simple film about complex romantic and political issues, well-performed and the work of a master film-maker whose minor work is more powerful than most director’s best.