Review, With Spoilers: Paul Thomas Anderson and Thom Yorke’s Short Netflix Film ‘Anima’ is a Transfixing Kaleidoscope of Anxiety and Love
In a 1992 article in the journal Pastoral Psychology, Roslyn A. Karaban tried to understand the influential psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s dueling concepts of the anima and animus. From that article:
The anima is what Jung calls the essence of a man’s personality, his female spirit. The animus is the complementary male spirit that lives and acts within a woman’s psyche. Both the anima and animus are spontaneously produced by the unconscious and are archetypes (primordial images) common to all people. For men the anima may be described as an image which they project onto the women that they meet. Common archetypal images include the Virgin, the Goddess, and the Divine Mother.
A woman or man usually only expresses his/her dormant qualities unconsciously by projecting them onto men or woman they meet.
I’m not going to talk much more about Jung here, so no, you don’t need to go watch David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which is about the professional relationship and competition between Freud and Jung, to keep reading this review. (Although, I do think the movie is pretty good, and has a very against-type Keira Knightley performance, and it was pre-Green Book Viggo Mortensen, so what’s not to like!) But it’s important, I think, to understand the “anima” concept before watching the same-named short film from Thom Yorke, director Paul Thomas Anderson, and cinematographer Darius Khondji, which premiered on Netflix last week. This idea, that personhood consists of the male and female spirit, is certainly heterosexually binary now, but there are elements of it that I think apply quite obviously to Anima, which falls somewhere between a dream and a nightmare, with moments of deep bleakness and heart-swelling love.
Anima is a companion piece to Yorke’s same-named solo album, and three songs from that album are featured: “Not the News,” “Traffic,” and “Dawn Chorus,” each of which correspond to a certain portion of the 15-minute short film. Yorke’s vocal style here is reminiscent of what he brought forth in the Suspiria soundtrack, and his sometimes eerie falsetto works well against Anima’s kaleidoscope of color and disorienting visual angles. Yorke, Anderson, and Khondji, with help from choreographer Damien Jalet (who worked on Suspiria alongside Yorke), artist Tarik Barri (whose installations are projected against cave walls in one portion of the film), and Yorke’s partner, Italian actress Dajana Roncione, create a world of rigid structure and zany diversions, a place in which everyone seems to be moving one way less out of personal desire and more out of homogeneous oppression.
When Anima begins, a group of people, all dressed in the same shades of grey and blue, mercantile outfits that seem suitable for the workers in Chernobyl, move in unison in a train car. Their heads move side to side, rested upon hands and forearms, as if they are all fighting off sleep. No one makes eye contact with each other. Everyone is struggling to stay asleep or to wake up; only Yorke seems to have self-awareness. “Who are these people?” he wonders in the lyrics of “Not the News,” but he does notice Roncione, who is sitting in another part of the train car. When she leaves her black metal lunchbox in the train, he struggles to break against the monotonous movements forced upon him to get to her, weaving around bodies on an escalator and trying to walk through the turnstile.
Finally alone, Yorke takes the turnstile at a running leap, flying over it and gliding forward into a series of caves, organic structures of rock and sand, all in strict contrast to the utilitarian natures of the workers that move among them. At this point the film switches to “Traffic,” the lyrics of which revel in dynamic opposition (“Submit/Submerged/No body/No body/It’s not good/It’s not right/A mirror/A sponge/But you’re free”). Yorke is an individual in a sea of otherness, and as he flails forward to find Roncione, others pursue him with dreadful intent.
Remember how the Tethered moved in Us? The jitteriness of it, but the intention? So it goes in Anima as Yorke moves against cavernous walls that glow green and yellow, seemingly silhouetted by a glowing orb, with extralong shadows of other workers pursuing him. Yorke thinks he’s escaped by heaving himself over the edge of one of those walls, but suddenly, everything changes: Gone are the organic textures, replaced by an all-white floor that seems to exist in both horizontal and vertical space. A line of others advance upon Yorke, moving along a horizontal expanse as if they are climbing upward, their angular bodies suggesting soldiers and insects and shadows. This feels like a nightmare, a specific place that does not follow linear rules of movement or time, and when the area shifts, it sends Yorke tumbling downward.
He can see the lunchbox, and he can see Roncione, but he still can’t entirely make his body do what he wants. As he strides past other workers, they fall like dominos—they collapse as he moves uphill until he too is trapped in what seems like a whirlwind, surrounded by whirling bodies, all of them encircled by a tornado of trash. Newspapers. Plastic bags. Coffee cups. The only thing for Yorke to do is submit, to let the minutia of life envelop him, and this moment is one of the film’s most beautiful—the idea that sometimes survival is tied to letting go.
Because when Yorke does acquiesce is when he becomes in charge of himself fully, waking up now face-down in a city street. He gets up. He brushes the trash off. And he finds Roncione as “Dawn Chorus” plays, with lyrics that seemingly dictate what this final portion, this embrace of love, becomes:
If you could do it all again
Yeah, without a second thought
I don’t like leaving
The door shut
I think I missed something
But I’m not sure what
In the middle of the vortex
The wind picked up
Shook up the soot
From the chimney pot
Into spiral patterns
Of you, my love
These final minutes of Anima are quite beautiful, and take us into dream space. Up against a wall covered in graffiti, Yorke and Roncione push and pull against each other, rushing into the street, jumping onto each other’s bodies, first in a twirl and then in a dance. Their attachment to each other attracts others, now also broken out of their regimented rhythm: They too embrace each other, dance in a grassy field, couple into pairs. Khondji shoots the pairs from below to see their grasping hands and from above to see their faces aligned with each other, these individuals choosing to seek each other out—filling the void that Jung had described all those years ago. Another train appears, punctuated with windows and filled with light, and this time Yorke and Roncione board it together. They sit across from each other, their fingers once clasped. And as we hear birds singing and see the shadows of leaves upon Yorke’s face, he falls asleep once more.
“Dawn Chorus” concludes with the lines:
If you could do it all again
Big deal, so what?
Please let me know
When you’ve had enough
And the question we’re left after Anima concludes is where that train will go—does it return to that same dark and dank tunnel where the film began? Will Yorke and Roncione and all the other people on the train do this all over again, or will they remember what they’ve already done, the bonds they’ve already broken? Has this already happened? The idea that to work and to live is a tedious, sometimes soulless endeavor isn’t a particularly unique one, and in fact, it’s one that Anderson has often considered in his work, most obviously in Daniel Plainview’s clear-eyed, amoral pursuit of capitalism in There Will Be Blood. And Yorke himself has written for years about these same concepts, from the Radiohead song “No Surprises”:
A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired, unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us
I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
To his song “The Universe is Indifferent” on last year’s Suspiria soundtrack:
I’ve turned, turned
All broken, my bones
I’m sorry, must go
Some water, some water
I walk in willows, the willows
Somehow I go where I don’t know
To where I don’t know
To walk in sorrow and shame
A knife is buried
But the little glimmer of hope in Anima is what sets it apart, and together with Anderson and Khondji, Yorke has crafted a short film that draws its power from both unsettling and invigorating us. Through it all, I thought, most surprisingly, of Forky from Toy Story 4, and of the suggestion that to truly know yourself is to accept that we are all inherently trash in the universe, but that it is our individual choice to attempt to become more, to do more, to mean more. It’s an eternal question—Can we be more than we were originally built for?—and one Anima considers with moments both uncanny and beautiful.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center