Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015
“Each person you speak to has had a day, some of the days have been good, some bad.”
Anomalisa’s soundtrack is bookended by a mess of chattering voices, indiscernible from one another and all strangely identical. It is a messy beginning to the film, introducing a sense of dread and confusion that bleeds into the life of the protagonist, Michael Stone (David Thewlis). Anomalisa tells the ostensibly mundane story of Stone, a successful author, public speaker and expert in customer service, as he prepares to give a speech at a conference. While staying in a hotel overnight, he calls up an old flame in an attempt to reconnect, only to be unceremoniously rejected.
Then he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the “anomalous” love interest from the film’s title. What stands out most to Michael about Lisa is her voice. A great deal is made in the film of the homogeneity of humanity. Every other character is voiced by one actor (Tom Noonan), who only very barely alternates his pitch and rhythm, giving us an insight into Michael’s relationship with others. Even his own wife and son have become part of the crowd to him, just more abstract grey voices that no longer hold any interest.
One of the chief concerns of existentialist philosophy, not least that of Jean-Paul Sartre, was how and why we should try to avoid becoming part of the crowd. Famously, in his play No Exit, Sartre penned the line “Hell is other people” to highlight this point. For Sartre, we are trapped in our own subjective experience, only ever seeing the world through our own eyes, and as such we feel isolated from those around us.
Michael Stone is a character who feels this isolation very palpably. He wanders the corridors of the hotel on his own, searching to make some kind of connection with anyone but never really being able to. Until, that is, he meets Lisa. During a drunken night of passion, Michael starts to see a connection with her through the fact that she is not part of the crowd. She is not conventionally attractive, she is more than a little weird (notably performing a bizarre a capella version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), and to him, in that moment, she is a beautiful anomaly.
One of the issues that Sartre sees in trying to connect with others comes in Being and Nothingness, through what he refers to as “the look”. He asks us to imagine that we are spying through a keyhole into a secret world. In that moment, our perception is focused on our own ends. We do not feel self-conscious. Then, we are told to imagine we hear footsteps behind us. Instantly, our perception changes and we feel ourselves under “the look” of another. We start to imagine ourselves through their eyes and it brings out a sense of guilt.
We all worry about how others perceive us, but Lisa shows this very strongly. She is almost painfully self-deprecating and shy, and tries to avoid contact for as long as possible. Michael, perhaps less obviously so, is also affected by this. Both characters show themselves to be hopeless communicators. They both work in customer service, in which a forced smile and a linguistic trick can bend people to their will, but they are only able to communicate through artifice. It is this layer of artifice, the forced smile that we wear, that separates us from each other.
The natural conclusion to the film, one might think, would be that Michael and Lisa finally make a breakthrough and get to see inside each other’s perceptions, experiencing the pure connection of love that they both desire. Kaufman, on the other hand, has a more interesting point to make.
When they wake up the next morning, Lisa instantly starts to irritate Michael. She eats with her mouth open and clicks her fork on her teeth, things that instantly disgust him. And as she starts to disgust him more, her once unique and beautiful voice rescinds back into the mass of grey sounds that every other character makes. She becomes, to Michael, part of the crowd.
Sartre very clearly recognised how we can never really connect with other people – not in the way that we want to – and his conclusion was that this realisation should free us. When we know that we can never know another, then why should we be so afraid of how others perceive us? Michael comes out of the film still feeling isolated and alone, and all voices start to fade back into the mass, but at least now he is liberated to pursue his own ends. Maybe, however, this provides little solace in an uncaring world.
Perhaps the existentialist nihilism of the film is best summed up by Michael himself:
“Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.”