Anomalisa [2015] – The Insurmountable Anguish known as ‘Existence’


Spoilers Ahead…………..

                                          To perfectly describe Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s wistful, refreshing, existential stop-motion feature “Anomalisa” (2015), I have to borrow Mr. Kaufman’s words itself: “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself”. Yeah, the movie is all about experiencing, just like life, where every now and then, we either witness something fascinating or just move through, contemplating on the humdrum of existence. In “Anomalisa”, we meet a unhappy central character Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a middle-aged customer service motivator, whose book “How May I Help You Help Them?” has generated lot of fans and also improved the rating of firms. His life has become so mundane and everyone he encounters has the same face and talks in the same monotonous voice (google ‘Fregoli Delusion’). Michael is en-route to Cincinnati, for a day to attend a conference as customer services expert.

                                          He stays at a posh hotel named ‘Fregoli’, calls his 'cold' wife in LA, who seems as disenchanted with life as Micheal is. He wants to re-invent himself or just want to get connected with someone. Old flame Bella comes to his mind (Michael dumper her 11 years earlier), who is living in the city and calls her up for a drink. Bella is depressed and soon storms out, when Michael awkwardly calls her to his room. Later, Michael witnesses a potential anomaly (or to be precise, he first hears) in the name of Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lisa is no beauty, compared to her popular friend Emily. She is also a mousier, insecure sales rep, treating herself to attend the favorite author’s conference. After few martinis and apple mojitos, Lisa winds up in Michael’s room for a nightcap. What ensues is the long, most beautiful, heart-rending love scene. The little stumble, awkward laughter, inherent sadness and sincere intimacy feels stunningly closer to life. The encounter might make us ask ‘Can Lisa save Michael from his existential despair?’ But, trying to find answers for Michael’s neurological problems isn’t Mr. Kaufman’s intention. All he asks is to just experience the unexpectedly humanistic moments in our puppet protagonist’s life.

                                        The aforementioned plot description may not do justice to the amazing aural and visual experience “Anomalisa” provides. The stop-motion animation seems to be the right choice, since the puppets aren’t perfect (similar to the characters in the film) like the chiseled bodies of computer-animated figures. So, there’s some organic flow in these inorganic things. And the mere presence of puppets makes us think about the word ‘manipulation’, which in turn easily allows us to connect with inherent existential themes. Kaufman and Johnson’s eye for detail in visualizing the characters’ physical interactions – the little tics, nervous stutters and awkward pauses – are all painfully realized and psychologically well-grounded. The director duo deserves applaud for tenderly handling the sex scene – the central moment of the film. It is not designed as a visual joke as in ‘Team America’. The scene is very much part of the story and the sense of genuine intimacy the directors diffuse in that encounter are nothing short of amazing. 

                                        Cinema often trains audience to view normal people (with fats) having sex, on-screen as a gross act. Their vulnerable feelings and awkward motions of their bodies are usually played for laughs. Kaufman and Johnson rather than heightening up that scene as a comedic experience keeps it authentic and grounded. The scene includes intimate kisses, cunnilingus and penetration, but there’s also little clumsy moments (like Lisa hitting her head on the headboard of bed and chucking, while undressing). It doesn’t become a struggle between two naked bodies, but a perpetual conflict between one’s desires and insecurities. And, since we don’t see full-bodied actors acting out sex on-screen, we somehow get drawn in and everything feels real (or weirdly erotic). The little doubts we might have had about the stop-motion aesthetic gets washed away with that brilliantly concocted sequence (this challenging scene actually said to have taken three months worth of testing and researches).  Of course, Kaufman’s ingeniousness isn’t pertained to realizing this boundary-pushing setup. The meaty part of “Anomalisa” is in Kaufman’s usual philosophical excursions and in raising intellectually honest questions.

Directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman (right)

                                         Charlie Kaufman, one of the most inventive minds in American cinema, tends to explore intellectuals, artists or celebrities’ alienation from fellow human beings and their arduous attempt in restoring hope and joy. With his directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), Kaufman constructed an enigmatic large scale real, where the endless worlds relapsed to bestow inevitable nightmares. “Synecdoche, New York” was compared to the works of cinematic master Alain Resnais and literary masters Kafka, Arthur Miller, but it also had its fair share of detractors. The movie received a standing ovation in Cannes, but only a lukewarm response from commercial perspective. The commercial failure didn’t allow Kaufman to realize his other idiosyncratic ideas, and so with “Anomalisa” he has worked on a lower-scale, both in terms of cost and entangled imagination. Nevertheless, within that reduced scale, poses profound questions about our lives’ inherent misery. Kaufman doesn’t treat this sadness with cynicism or black humor; he rather strives for tenderness and flawless whimsicality.

                                          There’s no direct reference to Michael’s psychological problems (‘fregoli delusion’) in the script (in ‘Synecdoche’, there’s a reference to ‘Cotard Syndrome’). May be Kaufman didn’t want to put a simple, medical tag on Michael’s problems. While subjectively viewing the experiences of a man, who shut himself from the world, we are gradually suggested that we all may be like the puppet protagonist. Traversing around our mundane life with no visible emotions and waiting to be impacted by a face or voice that somehow feels alive; that may bring cure to our existential slumber. Does creating an honest, reflective art makes the artist to get alienated from other persons? Does that kind of art brings hope only to those encounter or witness it? It is a significant theme that runs in Kaufman’s mind from “Adaptation”. The strange thing about alienation in our contemporary culture is that it doesn’t rise from disconnection. In this digital, social-media era, the problem isn’t staying connected, but it is the in-authenticity of our interactions with fellow humans that advances our alienation. Lisa, the anomaly, tends to provide the much-needed authenticity for Michael, but as sun glares brightly in the morning, the doubt sets off once again. In the excellent, lamentable breakfast scene (at the end), while Michael sees Lisa’s little imperfections, the sun glows on Michael’s face as if veil has been lifted. Alas, the light isn’t a ray of hope, but only brings home the point that he may end up alone in this indifferent world. So, is Kaufman saying that there is no possibility of hope and love? Maybe not. May be, the closing scene with Lisa writing to Michael about true romance, suggests us that he is an anomaly (it as an important scene, since it is the only time we don’t see Michael’s perspective). With a strong change in perspective, may be Michael could discover all the unbridled beauty and happiness in this world (but considering the way Michael reacts to his family, it would be a hard task).


                                             “Anomalisa” (90 minutes) genuinely deals with our feelings of isolation, lassitude, and frustration that evolves and matures from societal constructs. It also gently explores the humans’ desire for love and connection. 

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