VENICE (Reuters) - Director Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa", shown at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday, is a stop-motion animation film shot with puppets that is full of laughs, tenderness and more than a touch of the surreal.
But with an explicit sex scene between two of the puppets about halfway through, it won't be one for the whole family.
Kaufman refuses to discuss what his films or screenplays are about, but he and co-director and animation specialist Duke Johnson told Reuters in an interview they can live with the U.S. R-rating the film got because of the sex scene. It means viewers under 17 years old must be accompanied by an adult.
"We're fine with that ... I mean we wanted to do it in a way that was emotional because immediately people think puppets having sex is a joke," Kaufman said in Venice, where the film is competing for the top Lion d'Or prize.
"You know 'Team America' did it and it was done for a joke and ... it doesn't fit with our story to be that. It's an emotional moment ... so we worked really hard to make it that, to make it real and sensitive."
Kaufman, who wrote the screenplays for "Being John Malkovich" and "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", has not been a presence in the cinema since he made his directorial debut with the highly regarded but quirky "Synecdoche, New York" (2008).
He is making his return with this 90-minute film focusing on a motivational speaker named Michael, who flies into Cincinnati from Britain on a soul-sapping business trip.
Suffering from the type of identity crisis for which Kaufman characters are famous, Michael meets up during his one-night visit with an old flame, who has never gotten over him dumping her, and a woman named Lisa, who has come to hear him speak and who gives Michael new inspiration for life.
The film, which won favorable reviews at the Telluride Film Festival, where it was shown before an official premiere in Venice, is voiced by only three people.
Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High") is Lisa, whom Michael decides to rechristen Anomalisa when he falls for her.
David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in "Harry Potter") voices Michael and Tom Noonan ("12 Monkeys" TV series) is everyone else -- from the taxi driver who drives Michael to his hotel, to the receptionist, to everyone, male and female, in the hotel bar and so on.
Having almost everyone in the world speak with the same voice is a statement on who we are, and Kaufman allowed that identity, for him, is a tricky business.
"It's not fixed, I don't think it is for anybody, you know? ... We want to think we're this thing but we're kind of like constantly shifting and depending on who we're with and what age we are and even like at the same moment talking to different people in the same room we become different people, you know? At least I do."
Noonan said portraying a huge range of characters with only his voice was a challenge.
"In the movie you never see me, so I can't vary that far from my normal sound so it's a little harder ... to communicate," he said.
But Leigh said she'd enjoyed doing voicings for a change and was up for more.
"It's an art, it really is, there's an art to it and I'd love to do more of it, actually. I found it really quite focused and deep and there's something beautiful about it."
Editing by Larry King