To me, the movie Anomalisa is like an existential poem I can deeply identify with. It’s also a tragic love poem of sorts, and a requiem for the middle- and upper-middle class in “Western” society. Whether or not I enjoyed every minute of it is not important; just like I wouldn’t enjoy every minute of spying with binoculars on other people in hotel rooms, or spying on myself from a parallel universe. Because this, my friends, is what Anomalisa made me feel like I was doing. At times it made me feel uncomfortably close to the characters, as well as to my own life, choices – or lack thereof – and sense of self.
Anomalisa (2015) is a stop-motion feature written and directed by the American Charlie Kaufman, whose acclaimed past screenplays – also existential but not animated – include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich. The choice for this kind of animation fits in well with one of Anomalisa‘s central themes, and is in itself a device to illustrate it: Characters who simultaneously look like humans and robots – or puppets – populate its universe. The movie has won a slew of awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and is nominated for an Oscar. Anomalisa is set mostly within a few hours, which adds to its sense of realness, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The scenes slowly progress from an airport, to a hotel, to a conference hall, and then briefly to arriving back home in Los Angeles, within the realm of a one-day business trip. The uncut scenes of its protagonist using the hotel bathroom, having sex and walking down the hall, following the normal flow of life, made me reflect on how much other movies lack this. Movies with real humans.
The universe of Anomalisa, though full of universal themes, is minimalistic also in terms of actors: only three voices can be heard. The protagonist, Michael Stone, is voiced by David Thewlis; the protagonist’s extra-marital love interest, Lisa (to whom the movie title refers) is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh; and all other characters are voiced by Tom Noonan. I will leave it to you to discover why that is. I will also leave out plot details so you can have some of the element of surprise I had coming into the movie after only having watched the trailer.
Let’s turn our binoculars onto the tragic protagonist, and stay there for the most part, because it’s through his lenses that we almost exclusively get to explore Anomalisa‘s world. We get introduced to him as he lands in Cincinnati, re-reading a furious letter from a lover he abandoned 10 years earlier and who may figure more prominently in the plot later; we ride in the taxi out of the airport with him, and follow him to his hotel room where his breakdown becomes apparent. Michael Stone is lethally bored in a world where everyone looks the same and sounds the same to him, like robots – a world which he can’t escape but which he also helps create. He’s both product and maker in this world, more so a maker than a lot of us, because he’s got a voice. See, he’s a well-known, admired writer and motivational speaker for business, telling people how to increase productivity and win over customers. A crowd has gathered in Cincinnati to listen to him give a talk.
The success and money he’s achieved mean nothing to him. Michael Stone is charismatic via his books but unwilling to engage with people and inept at handling daily life, at least at the point in time where we get to meet him. Routine has turned him into a sociopath; bitterness and frustration at the world, but also apparently at his own inability to truly love back, has made him into a bad romantic partner and father. In my interpretation, he begins to take people for granted as soon as he notices that they like him, and our seeing them as robots may also be the consequence of his inability to see them as more than such. Michael Stone feels unchallenged, unable to be surprised – until Lisa comes along.
Through our own Stone-tinted binoculars we meet Lisa in the Cincinnati hotel. You’ll probably be surprised when you hear her, too. Somehow Michael Stone finds her extraordinary, although her self-esteem is very low. The two of them are the only ones who really look different to him from everyone else. He takes her back to his hotel room, and they spend together one of those rare magic nights we may also remember from random encounters on sojourns past. Suddenly, it seems possible to him to escape his mundane existence. It seems possible for him to have found the elusive “one.” If only they can stay together long enough, before the voice in his head is allowed to take over… or perhaps before the effect of the alcohol from the night before wears off. He desperately tries to hang on, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Jim Carey’s character in Eternal Sunshine, as the lights go out…
Lisa “Anomalisa” may be an anomaly indeed, but for reasons Michael Stone may not realize – keep an eye on her until the last frame where she appears. She may have something to teach us.
Bottom line: I find the movie important to watch both for its cinematic value and for its depth and sensibility in portraying the mundane and those caught in it. A lot is said in a mere hour and a half, but don’t expect a fast pace from scene to scene. In Leipzig, you can catch Anomalisa in English with German subtitles at Luru Kino this Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 21:00h.