Anomalisa employs intricate animation for musing about humanity

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, co-directors of Anomalisa, at a Q&A event in New York City. Photo by Nathan Drezner

For Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis, life is an endless cycle. He lives in a world of mirror images; he turns left and right, but the same things continually repeat themselves, and stare him straight in the eyes. Confronted by something different—a fresh voice in the endless void of the same—he jumps out of the shower nude, grapples for a pair of pants and a shirt, and sprints into the hallway, banging doors and shouting for Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa is the only person in his world who is an anomaly.

Anomalisa, a stop-motion film from Charlie Kaufman—the mind behind Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—questions what it means to be human, delving into Michael’s mind to marvel at the irony of our world’s infinite opportunities for displeasure in spite of its endless possibilities.

Michael’s fame as a self-help author brings him to Cincinnati for a lecture, where he spends two quiet nights in a hotel. However, his past in the city haunts him. The film opens with him reading a letter from his ex-girlfriend, who lives in Cincinnati, and afterwards he is driven deeper and deeper into despair. Now, as he stares around him, he feels that there is nothing new, nothing interesting—only people working to artificially perfect their lives.

The opening scene serves as a microcosm for the film, as a trickle of voices becomes a thunderous roar of sound before fading back to Michael’s own voice. These voices in the background are inseparable from one another, like a mirrored hallway of sound in a circus exhibit. All alone, Michael doesn’t know what to do and just stares silently at the letter from his lost girlfriend.

Michael’s work as a self-help author and customer service specialist doesn’t help his situation. As a man looking for something different, he is a leader in an industry that specializes in teaching everyone to act in exactly the same way. He teaches people to smile when they speak—no matter how they feel underneath—and instructs his followers to be kind, respectful, and careful with their words. As a result of their amiability, the productivity of the companies they work for goes up 90 percent, but Michael is locked in a paradox of consistency, unable to escape no matter how hard he tries.

That’s why Lisa, his anomaly, stands out so much—she is truly unique. She has a new voice, and even if her personality and her looks are fairly average, to Michael she’s brilliant simply because she’s different.

The cinematography focuses on the character’s hands and faces, while strong backlighting frames each shot. Shots from the first-person perspective also dominate the film. By brightly lighting the smallest details of a scene and honing in on the faces of the characters, the cinematography amplifies Michael’s anxious, troubled life.

The film parallels Kaufman’s earlier Synecdoche, New York, where a man struggles to find his own identity in a world where no single person stands out to him. Together, the films project a dark understanding of reality where the leads are set apart by their beliefs that everything is just a replica of something else. Even with that understanding, they are unable to distance themselves from the same routine, day in and day out.

On a deeper level, the film serves to investigate mental illness. The Fregoli syndrome—a rare disorder in which someone believes that everyone else is the same person, simply in a different outfit or disguise—is Michael’s psychological ailment. Like Mary and Max, another adult stop-motion film, Anomalisa investigates the effects of the disorder on Michael’s personality. As Lisa slowly becomes a clone of everyone else, Michael’s mind unravels. The Frigoli Hotel, where he stays, stops being a haven he found with Lisa and once again becomes a prison.

These motifs make the film unlike most other animated films. It’s an adult film, and the sex scene almost earned it an NC-17 rating. There’s puppet smoking, puppet cursing, and plenty of puppet penis. The animators sought to make the animation as realistic as possible, and unlike most animated movies, where proportions are warped and changed, Anomalisa features hyper-realistic animation. The animation is beautiful, but it can be uncomfortable to watch. The hotel, airport, and Cincinnati roads that Michael walks through are deeply intricate and oddly beautiful renditions of average places, while the faces and hands, carefully changed in each frame, are delicate and distinctly alive.

Kaufman’s intense vision and the startling message makes the film, in and of itself, an anomaly. It’s a film to think about, but one that needs a bit of mental preparation beforehand, too. It’s something that will make you walk out of the theater and wonder, “What the hell did I just watch?” Yet the ingenious concept and delicate handling of the dialogue, cinematography, themes, and the puppets themselves make the film impossible to miss.

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