Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015
“Whoever is alone, will stay alone.”
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche New York begins with these prophetic lines that not only capture the essence of that film but also of Kaufman’s entire oeuvre. His latest film, Anomalisa bears no such preface; the film begins with a cluster of voices that tempts one to participate, only to end in a deafening blur.
Anomalisa marks the return of Kaufman after almost eight years and at the look of the film it almost seems he is a new man. Not new to collaborations, Kaufman ties up with Duke Johnson to create a stop motion drama, a technique that makes the characters look very similar to puppets but with more fluidity in their movements. But thought puppet-like, the protagonist disturbingly resembles us and so do his problems. Sitting in his hotel room, enveloped with ennui, the middle-aged Michael Stone is far closer to Bob Harris from Lost in Translation than to Carl Fredricksen in Up. A self-help author, Stone arrives at Cincinnati to deliver a talk and the film captures his journey to and from that place. Kaufman’s Cincinnati is a strangely adult world where not a single kid features. It is the domain of the adults, of their anxieties and the only toy shop that exists there sells sex toys. It is a city of closed doors, of failed relationships and within minutes you realize that Kaufman has not changed one bit. He is still scraping the old wounds and his protagonist still dreads being without somebody and concomitantly suffers from the inability to be with someone. Returning to familiar territory, Kaufman uses the Fregoli delusion, which is a belief that everyone else in the world is the same person in order to show the extreme self-absorption and the alienation his protagonist suffers from. Michael Stone is posited in such a world which makes him not only the quintessential Kaufman hero but puts him first in the line. He is engulfed by the same-ness, in the way people look and in the way they sound to him. His wife, his ex-lover, his child, the lift man all appear and sound the same to him, except Lisa, the girl with a scar on her forehead and who is never chosen over his friend. Lisa becomes the anomalisa.
But it is no love story. There is no hope. Alienation is the word that comes up time and again while watching the film and writing about it. It is sought for, assented upon, even struggled with. There are three voices that are used in the film. David Thewlis becomes the voice of Michael Stone, doing an absolute stellar job. He brings across the exact sense of boredom and the pathos in the character. For the rest of the characters, Tom Nooman lends his voice. In a plaintive tone he is at once accusing Stone as an ex-lover, as a wife, completely failing to understand him and seducing him as the rest. For Lisa, it is Jennifer Jason Leigh, sounding mellifluous as she sings for Stone in the hotel room and equally vulnerable as she finally falls prey to Nooman’s voice.
With puppets walking up and down the screen, Anomalisa may not share Kaufman’s language but shares his grammar. But this time Kaufman disturbs more, even disorients. By creating a stop motion drama, he immediately creates a distance from the audience and yet his world is deeply rooted in the real world we reside in. Anomalisa deeply confounds. It reveals the many facades that we live behind and how with a delicate push all may just come tumbling down. In a fascinating scene, the protagonist, while closely inspecting himself tries to dislocate a piece of his face. It threatens to fall off. Kaufman with unflinching brutality reveals how the spurt of celebration on finding a new love dies down not because love is too commonplace but because it is an anomaly and we are unsure about what to do with one. Therefore like Michael we return where we had begun: unloved but reeking of familiarity. We return not because we must but because we may. There is a choice and we choose the most convenient. Kaufman is a bitter man here and yet he earns our grudging acquiescence. Anomalisa is a deeply personal film which much like our most private moments that often spill out in public, asks in full view, “what is to ache, what is to be human?”
This may be Kaufman’s finest.
– Ishita Sengupta