Spoiler warning: Our In Focus series continues with Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (2015)
IT can be a daunting prospect to sit down and watch a Charlie Kaufman film.
They are difficult to grasp – even after repeat viewing – unapologetically demanding and disobedient to mainstream expectation. At times, this means his films are more accessible to academic dissection than mainstream consumption.
Understandably, being plunged into a labyrinth of philosophical thought is not everyone’s idea of entertainment. That certainly showed in the financial reception of Synecdoche, New York (2008). Although critics raved about the film, Kaufman’s complexities had clearly reached too far for the casual viewer.
To make matters worse, the economy and movie industry continued to shift further out of his reach. Suddenly, Kaufman was unfashionable, unprofitable and unable to get a project off the ground.
In 2012, the writer-director turned to his fans. With the help of crowd-funding website Kickstarter and animator Duke Johnson, Kaufman used puppets to bring his project, Anomalisa, to life.
Originally a stage play performed in 2005, Anomalisa tells the story of Michael Stone, an author from England who travels to Cincinnati, Ohio to give a talk on his field of expertise – customer service.
Michael spends a night in a hotel, The Fregoli, where relationships – past, present and impending – begin to haunt his lonely and self-destructive mind. Despite having a family at home, Michael becomes engrossed by a shy female admirer called Lisa, who he nicknames Anomalisa.
At the film’s core is the notion of alienation. We live in a growingly detached world where people are more invested in computers than humans and genuine conversation is a dying art.
Michael, middle-aged and likely suffering from a mental health issue, is a victim of his own inability to connect with others for more than one fleeting evening. Shortly after arriving in Cincinnati, he is visibly irritated when the friendly cab driver tries to engage him with talk about the weather, chilli and the local zoo.
Michael then grits his teeth through a similarly bland interaction with the hotel’s bell boy before finally reaching his room where the magazine Cincinnati sitting on his table reads: ‘Try The Chilli’.
For Michael, every interaction appears to be mundane, repetitive and frustrating. The film’s setting, a hotel, only reinforces these feelings of sameness and distance.
Later on it is the small talk mention of the Cincinnati zoo which awakens Michael to Lisa’s perceived normalcy.
The Fregoli Delusion
The use of stop-motion animation gives an effective – but contained – range to Kaufman’s creativity. If Synecdoche, New York was his grand, and at times overwhelming, masterpiece, then Anomalisa is his tidy and accessible puppet show.
It allows Kaufman to play with voices and faces, both of which he keeps the same for every character apart from Michael and Lisa. This uniformity has an unnerving and disorientating affect, particularly in the image-obsessed culture we now live in.
As referenced by the name of the hotel, Kaufman was inspired by Fregoli delusion – ‘in which person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise’.
Although Michael does not suffer from this condition, he certainly feels trapped by something similar. As he desperately tells his scorned lover Bella: ‘I think I might have psychological problems’.
Michael is unable to escape his outlook on the world and, worryingly, himself. Yet, the existential moments where his face glitches and later drops off entirely suggest he is a victim. Michael might be at the mercy of the mechanics of his own body, a chemical imbalance that leads him into this damaging cycle.
Or, like the literal puppet that he is, Michael is at the mercy of the society which has created him. He can do little to repair his own condition because it is already decided. Either way, the bleak aesthetic of Kaufman’s film mirrors Michael’s feeling of unresolvable hopelessness.
Love and Sex Toys
Michael’s momentary glimmer of hope – and of love – comes when he meets Lisa. After appearing infatuated by her, perhaps drawn to her vulnerabilities and insecurities, Michael wakes up in the morning to realise it was nothing more than a regrettable fling.
A clue to Michael’s relationship with Lisa lies in the Japanese sex doll which he buys from Dino’s Toys – a wink to producer Dino Stamatopoulps.
On an aesthetic level, Lisa and the doll have similarities. They have scars on the right-hand side of their faces, they both sing to Michael and are voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
But their most meaningful similarity is that they are relatively disposable vehicles to satisfy a male’s sexual desire. Sadly for Lisa, the final shot of the film indicates she is oblivious to this cruel reality.
The events of Anomalisa suggest Michael is incapable of prolonged romantic love. He returns to his home and immediately starts bickering with his wife – back to the reality of a loveless marriage.
Contrast this to earlier in the film when the classic 1936 movie My Man Godfrey (originally Casablanca in the script) plays in the hotel room. Kaufman is harkening back to a time of idealised romance – of courtship and restraint. This seems all too distant in Michael’s one-night-stand reality.
Distinctive, stimulating and inventive.
Anomalisa is a reminder that Kaufman is an American filmmaking anomaly. One that we should all cherish, even if we don’t always understand.
Join us next week as we take an In Focus look at La La Land
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Subversive Casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers
Also Read: The Shallows (Film Review)