FilmREVIEW: Anomalisa




Director: Charlie Kaufman, Duke ​Johnson ​
Stars: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, David Thewlis

Reviewer Jacqueline Lucas Palmer

“Every Person You Speak To Has A Childhood”: Love Addiction and Telephone Sales in Anomalisa

“Sometimes there’s no lesson.  That’s a lesson in itself”, describes the search for meaning at the heart of Kaufman’s artistic oeuvre.  A scriptwriter whose identity supersedes the directors he collaborates with, his films explore life’s disappointments and complex relationships.  In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, painful memories of an ex-lover are erased from the brain, while in Being John Malkovich, a puppeteer is offered fifteen minutes inside another person’s head, the celebrity actor of the title.  Exploring a different kind of memory loss, Michael Stone in Anomalisa suffers from the ‘Fregoli delusion’, rendering people carbon copies of each other.

Using puppets and stop frame animation, identikit puppets appear and sound almost interchangeable, with large heads, stubby limbs and weird fault lines running from ear to ear. Michael pops pills and booze on a flight to Cincinnati, while reading an angry fuck you letter from a jilted lover.  He checks into his hotel, the ‘Fregoli’, a corporate universe where hotel porters go through their check-in script, airport cabbies list tourist spots, and bored sex shop salesmen deliver the same unsettling phoney sales spiel (voiced identically by Tom Noonan).

Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a British motivational speaker in from LA to give a talk from his bestseller How May I Help You Help Them.  In customer sales, Michael’s a star, but in private he’s a mess.  His wife sounds disinterested to get his call, his son just wants a toy.  Looking up a local ex-girlfriend, Bella is still upset by their breakup eleven years later.  “I didn’t get out of bed for a year”, she tells Michael, shocked to hear from him, and getting over her own latest ‘psycho’.  Michael struggles to recognize her in the hotel bar, (a symptom of his delusion), offering her no closure or insight into why he left.  “Did you change?” he muses, enraging Bella, as he coolly invites her to his room.

Losing the plot, Michael looks in the mirror at a face that seems to be coming apart.  He hears a voice through the walls and begins knocking on doors till he finds Emma and Lisa, in town from Akron for his talk.  Captivated by Lisa’s voice, (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) Michael plies the girls, who are excited to meet the celebrity author, with mojitos. “I’m not smart and I’m ugly”, says Lisa, who has no confidence and a facial scar; her last relationship (with a sixty-year old married man) was eight years before.  Confused, she thinks Michael wants Emma, who “everybody likes”. Lisa sings him Cyndi Lauper’s song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.  The lyrics, in English and Italian, resonate with loneliness and despair and sound nothing like the carefree pop song.

Quoting the word ‘anomaly’ Lisa learned from his book, Michael christens her Anoma-Lisa.  Their stop motion lovemaking is painful and comic to watch, and all too human.  Shot from above in a long take, it captures their awkward attempts and moves, as he urges her to keep talking, or at least moan, so he can hear her voice.   A love addict and a love avoidant, Michael tells Lisa he’s leaving his wife by breakfast but is even quicker to cool off. “Don’t talk with food hanging out of your mouth”, he criticizes, as Lisa’s voice segues into the ubiquitous Noonan, her voice merging with all the others, empty of its magic and its ‘anomaly…sa’.  Love is an escape from anxiety and loneliness but there seems to be nothing that lasts.

Plagued by dreams of men and women projecting their longing onto him, Michael is at breaking point:  “I want to cry but I can’t.” He dries up on stage, ranting against the establishment, then prompting his audience halfheartedly to “believe in your product”.  The film comments on a consumer society baffled by choice: room service buttons boast a same but different array, repeated woodenly by room service phone attendants, the nibblos, chocco bricks, brownie balls, nick nacks and scoochies which Lisa’s company manufactures at ‘Test Men Foods’ and the twenty-four hour ‘toy’ store, offering giant dildos, as Michael settles on an ejaculating Geisha doll for his kid.

Love as projection makes Michael special, not like others, while the cinema audience sees a man, underwhelming, flawed and at breaking point.  The film seems to suggest that same, or special and different, underneath the mask which Michael loses in his nightmare, like a bad acid trip, lurks existential angst, loneliness, alienation and depression.  People wait for someone who’ll recognise the magic in their voice, searching for a moment of connection to escape the banality and pain of life.

“Most people don’t like to look at me too much”, Lisa tells Michael.  Is Lisa an anomaly, defined as particular and special as he at first sees her, or abnormal, as Lisa sees herself?   “I’m so glad we had this time together”, Lisa writes to him, buoyed by the words ‘goddess of heaven’, a definition she finds for ‘anomalisa’ in her Japanese-English dictionary. Credits roll to a Kaufman song, They’re All The Same and None of Them is You’.  This could be the chorus of a love addict seeking his next fix, or a man suffering the Fregoli delusion of sameness.

Without a lesson where is life’s meaning or purpose?  Kaufman articulates the anxiety under the masks we wear, masks that break down, late at night, when we’re alone, to reveal the halting voices of people’s fragile identities.

Jacqueline Lucas Palmer, an integrative psychotherapist, is in private practice in North London and runs “A Return to Intimacy” workshops.  With an MA in Film from the BFI, she has practiced photography and published poems and short stories on her path to becoming a psychotherapist.


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