WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Anomalisa’.
Anomalisa is a beautifully intricate tale of loneliness and insecurity, which marks Charlie Kaufman’s 7th written film and 2nd directorial project alongside Duke Johnson, Kaufman’s partner in the animation production studio Starburns Industries.
Anomalisa began life back in 2005, as a radio play for Kaufman-led passion project Theater of the New Ear. Filmed entirely through the medium of hyper-realistic stop motion animation, Anomalisa creates an uncomfortably eerie reflection of our own reality, as we follow the main character, Michael Stone, on his quest to feel something again.
The film opens on a commercial flight to Cincinnati where Michael Stone, (David Thewlis) a celebrated customer service advisor, is headed to promote his latest book. Once in Cincinnati, Michael checks into the Fregoli hotel – a reference to the Fregoli disorder where one perceives two or more people as the same person. Also, a quick fact: Charlie Kaufman first wrote Anomalisa under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli. Coincidence?
When Michael’s loneliness, made even worse by his apparent disconnection with his family (as shown by a brief phone call) becomes too much to bear, Michael resorts to calling his ex-girlfriend Bella, who now lives in Cincinnati. They meet up for the first time in 11 years, and this is where Michael’s delusion becomes apparent.
After small talk fails to fill the void in what is left of their failed relationship, Michael begins asking Bella if she’s changed, or if any change has occurred in the years since they were together. Michael states she used to have a unique voice, and that she looks wonderful, but it’s clear to the audience that Bella has the same face and voice as the rest of the characters we’ve met thus far, thus invalidating Michael’s first act of kindness as a vain attempt to connect to a formerly familiar person.
Charlie Kaufman has stated in a previous interview that Michael does not have the Fregoli Delusion, but that his character is heavily based upon it, which shifts Michael’s struggle from a psychological disorder to a common human problem – that of a natural human craving for connection.
When Bella leaves, Michael heads out into the city and stumbles across a sex shop (thinking that it is an ordinary toy shop) to buy something for his son. He admires a beat-up Japanese sex doll for its uniqueness in comparison to the other, identical toys. Later on in the night, he hears a siren of white noise accompanied by the voice of (what he thinks is) his friend, luring Michael into a crazed chase. Frantically knocking on the doors of the Fregoli, he is confronted with two women. They are there for Michael’s press conference – and are big fans. One girl bears the same characteristics as the rest of the characters, whilst the other, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Lee) has a unique face and voice.
Lisa is a simple-minded, insecure, but ultimately kind spirited woman, with a distinct scar on her right eye. Michael invites Lisa to his room, immediately smitten, as she stands out against the larger crowd, similar to the doll. They connect over similar self-diagnosed traits. Both Michael and Lisa feel like anomalies, hence the nickname Michael gives her: Anomalisa. Eventually, they go to bed with each other, which becomes a cathartic experience for both parties. Whilst they sleep, Michael has a nightmare. In his nightmare, Michael explores a customer service department (within the Hotel) filled with identical people demanding him to go for anyone but Lisa, representing the draining negativity that comes with feeling different and discontent with who you are.
Michael wakes up and immediately professes his love for Lisa. They both agree to be together despite Michael’s marriage, something bitterly triumphant – all until Lisa repeats a familiar phrase, and one that the cab driver had said to Michael near the start of the film: “We could go to the Cincinnati Zoo”. This launches Michael into an agitated, downward spiral, as he tries to micromanage every flaw he finds in Lisa – from the way she talks, to the way she eats her eggs.
Lisa had always carried these flaws and didn’t change overnight – similarly to how Bella hadn’t changed when her and Michael were dating. All of this stems from Michael’s core problem with the human connection, and his desire to trump his loneliness by any means – rather than making meaningful relationships for the sake of true emotional interaction.
Death of a Salesman’s Reputation
Michael finally gives his speech and it goes horribly awry. He begins babbling and stumbling his words, mixing his own opinions with off-topic tangents, forming the final crack in Michael’s emotional armor. Inbetween his near-incoherent babbling, he states that every person is an individual who must be treated as such, which is a great mindset to have in customer service, but seems very ironic for someone who practically has Fregoli’s Delusion.
Michael arrives back home after the conference to be greeted with a surprise party filled with his family and friends. This is where the possibilities for interpretation explode, which is what makes every Charlie Kaufman story so timeless and thought to provoke. As it turns out, Michael bought the Sex doll, and gifts it to his son upon his arrival. Shortly thereafter, during a conversation with his wife, his son inquires about a strange white liquid coming out of it.
Investigating, Michael’s wife says it’s probably semen. As the Doll has both a scar on her right eye as well as a penchant for singing and speak Japanese, both of which Lisa confessed loving to do, questions are immediately raised over the subject of Lisa’s existence, and whether or not she is actually real. The very next scene, however, shows Lisa writing a heartfelt letter to Michael in the car as she and her friend leave Cincinnati for good. So, was Lisa real?
Well perhaps – as no answer is explicitly given, only hints. For example, as the Doll is for Sex, being pre-owned, there is an unfortunate chance that it might have already been used, explaining the Semen. The following scene in the car with Lisa and her friend is the only scene without Michael and shows that not only Lisa but her unnamed friend have unique faces and voices. This concludes the film with a hopeful outlook – depending on your interpretation – from the viewpoint of our secondary characters, and a sense of hope for Michael – to eventually reconnect with his loved ones.