Anima is an experimental short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, signalling the release of the eponymous album by Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke. The pair had previously worked together on the video for Daydreaming, and since the album’s industrial-ambient tones have been the subject of rave reviews this week, the short film makes a welcome accompaniment. Receiving a very limited IMAX release, the film will largely rely on streaming distribution for its takings, but the most important part is that it reaches the eyes and ears of a wider audience.
This is the sort of film that would work well as an extended music video, so the decision to release it on Netflix is unusual — it’s a crossover we wouldn’t normally see, aside from a few exceptions (like Homecoming, or The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorised Bash Brothers Experience.) But despite this, it’s a very engaging blend of experimental dance, theatre and symphonic storytelling that would do well to teach a generation of Netflixers the importance of arthouse cinema.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release date: June 26, 2019
The album Anima is minute in scale: at just 48 minutes, it feels like a slightly longer EP but not quite a full studio album. Yorke, of whose solo endeavours this is the third, has evidently taken ambient influences and shifted away from his Radiohead roots towards something if not entirely cleaner, then more breathable. In addition, Yorke had worked with choreographer Damien Jalet on the soundtrack for Suspiria, so their collaboration on this project enabled them to wrap up a lot of the “unfinished business” between them, the best of both the film and music worlds.
The film itself, produced as an accompaniment to the album but still enjoyable standalone, is split roughly into three stages: a train ride, a pursuit, a brief period of bliss/a finale. I enjoyed trying to deduce what the characters’ movements signified from the start, though it took multiple viewings to thoroughly absorb each of the gestures. Some sequences feel David Lynch-inspired, bending forms to discombobulate the viewer, leaving you looking for solid ground again.
Often arthouse films can attract criticism for their overt self-indulgence, but what distinguishes Anima from others is that it’s not solely reliant on the plight of a single character (played by Thom Yorke), instead weaving a story about the pursuit of a woman (Dajana Roncione, Yorke’s real-life partner.) Sure enough, it’s a simple setup. Some reviews have slipped into an overly reductionist view of the film as a silent comedy, which are only half right. There are definitely comic moments, like when Yorke attempts to pass a turnstile but keeps running into the same spot. Anderson certainly intended his ‘one-reeler’ to echo the tropes of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, but to say that it’s simply a comic movie would be to dismiss all the surreal elements.
For instance, if we think about the choreography of the dancers in the opening frames, why is it that they’re all lulling heads and shifting posture? Is there a sense of universal fatigue that only the man and woman are alert to, which sparks their encounter? The subtext of physical movement could be read into at length throughout the feature, including during a dreamlike encounter between the man and a line of indomitable figures who prevent him from keeping hold of the precious lunchbox. Who they are, and what they signify, could have endless possibilities.
The movement between actors feels visceral, in a way that only dancers could achieve — as if they’re animated, hence ‘anima’. A notable pas-de-deux between the two leads builds in momentum and intensity, eventually leading us right into another sequence. Even though it’s hallmarked by balletic precision, the piece sometimes gives way to more free-flowing movements which adapt to the soundtrack. The somnambulist state of half-waking, half-dreaming extends from the opening subway sequence to a frenzied chase through the city, out into a night-time reverie and later into a dewy dawn.
If I were to pick holes, I’d say that despite the 12-minute one-reeler intent, the piece felt as though it ended too abruptly. But perhaps that was also part of its charm: a self-contained fantasy. It often felt like a futuristic time-lapse, but handled in a way that made it feel like the kind of Anderson feature we’ve come to expect. It also runs the risk of becoming a little too conceptually ambiguous, but a central chase for a lunchbox in its simplicity helps keeps the feature grounded.
I liked that it made me think more about the relationship between musical composition and visuals — the creative process behind these two is often seen as mutually exclusive, but it’s inspiring to see them working together. Having the colour palette transition from cold, artificial subway lighting to a warm, naturally-lit morning glow reflected a change in the punctuated electronic beats to a more sustained, harmonious sound.
Towards the end the story feels bittersweet, but don’t let it put you off. I found Anima fun to watch, and the choice of songs — Dawn Chorus, Not The News, Traffic — were a well-rounded selection. I’d suggest taking time to do some further listening and digging into the album as well as the film, and if you have access to a good pair of headphones, it’ll accentuate the mid-tones and bass as well as making full use of the stereo effects. I imagine this would have been fantastically immersive on the big screen, in the way that something like ROMA or Interstellar benefited from their theatrical releases, but even when streaming it’s possible to simulate the effects yourself with the right kit.
What I enjoyed the most about Anima was that it wasn’t afraid to play with form. The experiences of both Anderson and Yorke will have had a profound effect on the way that they approached the piece, so the crossover of styles from the film and music industries naturally met at a satisfying mid-point. While it might take a bit of getting used to or might not be the first choice for some on Netflix, to me Anima felt like a gem that we’re lucky enough to be able to watch right at home.