Director Paul Thomas Anderson is quite obviously well-regarded for his contributions to the theatrical feature space. Case in point: his last three films — THE MASTER (2012), INHERENT VICE (2014) and PHANTOM THREAD (2017) —- were included in a recent (if somewhat premature) ranking by Indiewire of the 100 best films of the decade. However, there’s another case to be made for his short-form output as perhaps his most radical, experimental, and exhilarating work. His recent string of music videos for Radiohead, Joanna Newsom, and Haim has created an organic creative space for Anderson to refine and reshape his artistic voice with innovative new techniques unfettered by the demands of three-act narrative structure. Anderson also uses these projects to experiment with alternative distribution strategies, whether it be a surprise online release or an exclusive limited engagement at a repertory theater with serious indie street cred. It seems only natural, then, that Anderson would one day collaborate with Netflix, the current reigning championship of “alternative” distribution.
Shot in May of 2019 — a scant month or two before its release on the streaming platform — Anderson’s semi-futuristic short ANIMA distinguishes itself as one of the most radical, visually-striking works of his career. Described by Anderson and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke as a “one-reeler” (a term from the silent-film era), ANIMA unspools across a dystopian cityscape over the course of fifteen fleet-footed minutes, driven by the idiosyncratic rhythms of three music tracks from Yorke’s eponymous solo album. The title of both the film and the album is derived from Carl Jung’s theories on dreams and the collective unconscious (1), suffusing an otherwise-simplistic narrative with a rich subtext about the inner chaos that animates us as well as the ceaseless difficulty of pushing back against the conformity of modern life. Anderson mixes the undeniable influence of dystopian parables like 1984 with the absurdist physicality of silent-era stars like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin to arrive at a wholly unique, bemusing tone. In short, the narrative follows Yorke’s character as he tries to return a forgotten briefcase to a mysterious woman (York’s real-life partner Dajana Roncione). His journey unfolds like a sprawling dream, taking him from the twisting underground labyrinth of the city subway system on through to a cavernous quarry-like space. The piece culminates in Yorke fighting against gravity itself on an abstractified white plane before he’s able to emerge onto the nocturnal streets of a European city and reunite with the woman on a streetcar just before the sun begins to rise. The choreography, by SUSPIRIA’s Damien Jalet, reinforces the dreamlike nature of ANIMA’s story, forcing the frames’s subjects to contort themselves into impossible shapes that further abstractify Yorke’s surroundings.
After serving as his own cinematographer through his string of short works as well as PHANTOM THREAD, Anderson invites seasoned DP Darius Khondji to shoot ANIMA using a mixture of film and large-format digital acquisition. A fine layer of organic grain blends the two formats seamlessly, better allowing for a subtle emphasis on their differences: the clean stability of the Alexa 65 image versus the constrained tension of film (it’s unclear whether ANIMA’s film segments were captured on 35mm or on the larger 65mm gauge to better match the digital resolution). Anderson’s first-ever collaboration with Khondji yields stunning results, with Khondji’s decades of expertise melding quite seamlessly with Anderson’s strength of vision and own technical mastery of the craft. ANIMA was shot almost entirely on location, in various urban and subterranean locales around France and Prague. Following in the tradition of George Lucas’ THX 1138 or Andrei Tarkovsky’s STALKER, the dystopian atmosphere is implied rather than visibly constructed, achieved through a painstaking curation of appropriate real-world locations, costumes and color. One of the earliest images shows a subway car full of people in the same dark overcoat, cut in an ultra-modern, future-adjacent silhouette. The sameness of the costumes underlines the dystopic, conformist environment into which Yorke is dropped, all the while complementing the slate-beige neutrality of the subway stations, underground industrial cavern, and above-grade streetscapes. By leaning heavily into earth tones in his locations and costumes, Anderson is able to leverage pops of bright color to striking effect— take the candy-red support poles in the subway car for instance, or the electric chartreuse of the streetcar’s signage. Even the simple contrast between pure blacks and whites sears the eye, best evidenced in the middle section where Yorke battles society and gravity alike atop an unsteady blank plane. Anderson and Khondji utilize a combination of handheld camerawork and classical tracking movements to reinforce the probing, dreamlike nature of ANIMA as a whole, while the lenses required by the choice to shoot in large-format mediums creates a shallow depth of field that facilitates Anderson’s continued exploration of portraiture’s compositional conceits. Ethereal lens flares and impressionistic, looming shadows cast onto stone walls further add to the allegorical, highly-experimental nature of ANIMA’s presentation.
Despite Netflix’s rapid emergence as the entertainment industry’s “establishment” over traditional studio structures, it’s somewhat fitting that Anderson’s most abstract work to date would, following an initial limited IMAX release, make its wide debut on a platform wholly dedicated to shattering theatrical norms. Like much of his recent short-form work, ANIMA’s audacious technical presentation leaves little room for Anderson’s thematic signatures— Yorke’s quest for connection with the mysterious woman echoes the constant search for a sense of family and belonging so often undertaken by his characters, placing ANIMA most in-line with PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE over any other particular film of his. That said, ANIMA’s very existence makes one acutely aware of the need for Anderson to tackle a future dystopian setting in his feature work; the world on display here would make for a compelling backdrop upon which Anderson could further the themes of family, power, and idiosyncratic identity that shape his inimitable voice. For the time being, however, the virtuoso visuals throughout ANIMA will have to sustain our speculation about what new direction Anderson’s unpredictable artistry will take.
ANIMA is currently available as a high-definition stream via Netflix.
Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Sara Murphy, Erica Frauman
Director of Photography: Darius Khondji
Choreography: Damien Jalet
Editor: Andy Jorgensen
Music: Thom Yorke