As with all Charlie Kaufman’s films, there’s brilliance in Anomalisa, points where he pins down the neurotic fragility underpinning our (individual) reality. This picture, in particular, is determined to make life additionally difficult for itself, however, by assuming the manner of its protagonist. It is thus a more remote, less accessible piece than, say Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a state of affairs compounded by the uncanny stop motion animation. Anomalisa is slow, hypnotic, arresting, but while often profound in its insights, like the malaise of its central character, it isn’t profoundly affecting.
Kaufman’s starting-point was the Fregoli delusion, whereby an individual may perceive others to be one person in disguise, and from such cerebral beginnings come cerebral, rather than emotive, filmmaking. He wrote Anomalisa initially as a radio (or sound) play, with the same cast of David Thewlis (as self-help author Michael Stone) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa Hesselman, whom Stone meets at a conference and perceives to be different and special), with the other parts are all played by Tom Noonan. The puppets reflect this; Michael and Lisa are distinctly sculpted, but Noonan’s characters, reflecting Michael’s perception that everyone else is the same, are cast from the same mould but with different appliances (the features resemble a disconcerting amalgam of Imelda Staunton and Cillian Murphy).
Not a whole lot happens; Michael arrives at a hotel (The Fregoli), experiences various annoyances, attempts to hook up with an old flame, then meets Lisa, whom he seduces. But it’s the minutiae of these mundane or otherwise events that command attention. And, as is always the case with Kaufman, lurking within is the very real fear that something may be seriously awry with existence itself, as expressed through the antic aspect of a disturbed mind (a mind that exerts influence over others in its delusion). Most striking here are the moments where Michael appears to become aware of his nature as a puppet, an entity without true freewill, so giving substance to his fear, and so momentarily wrapping us in his mind-set.
Thewlis, a mere near-quarter of a century ago, wrapped us in another warped mind, that of Johnny in Naked, and if Michael Stone is much more subdued and repressed, he is no less disordered. In particular, his sexual gambits show him, above and beyond his persistent dismissiveness and short temper with others, to be entirely self-serving and manipulative. Married with a son, he shamelessly attempts to engineer a one-night stand with Bella, the woman he deeply hurt when he abandoned her a decade before. All the time he bemoans how there is something wrong with him, but is his objectification of others the symptom or the cause? He quickly forgets about Bella when he comes across Lisa, but in turn, once he has had his satisfaction, the lustre wears off, and her features resolve into that pervasive identikit state.
The use of puppets, and eerily naturalistic puppets at that, is something of a stroke of genius, even if it was borne of circumstance rather than express intent (it was suggested by co-director Duke Johnson). Parts of Anomalisa, such as the unidealised intimate sex scene, are quite staggering, while others, such as the extended dream sequence, are already uncanny because the whole film is, and so attain an additional power.
If Michael ultimately reduces his experience to some rather banal statements (“What is it to be human, what is to be alive?” he asks his audience at the seminar), one might assume Kaufman’s ruminations and perpetual crisis of existential doubt result from an essentially atheistic position, since the self-involved appeals often bear a passing similarity to vintage Woody Allen. But while Kaufman is noncommittal (he merely passes opinion that “God is no kind of anthropomorphic entity, if he exists” which seems entirely reasonable), one nevertheless gets the impression his characters are alone, isolated and bereft in their worlds, and the only sustenance the questionable soul can gain is fleeting contact with another. And, if they use and discard another, what difference does it make, because, after all, they are all alone, isolated and bereft in their world? Stone is fatigued with life, and nothing brings him joy, certainly not his wife and child (for whom he buys a Japanese sex doll because he can’t be bothered to make an effort with his shopping; notably his son is learning his father’s ulterior, possessive traits), and lust provides only a brief respite.
One might complain that Kaufman himself is an immensely intricate, self-involved one-trick pony; that he never says anything else. But then, if his engine is one of the discontented artist, unhappy with the illusion life consistently serves and unable to retrieve the truth within, without or wherever pertaining to it, finding a glimmer of light or hope would be to dampen his fuse (oh, for his earlier, funnier films!)
Anomalisa becomes particularly despondent (not that it isn’t enough anyway) if we conclude that “Lisa” is actually the Japanese sex doll (the one he presents to his son, mysteriously dripping with ejaculate) and his illicit encounter is actually no more than a particularly sweaty wet dream. Kaufman doesn’t like to provide answers to his content, no doubt because the mystery is part of the package, and the unadorned truth is much less thought-provoking (in this case, it may also be because both possibilities are equally valid – that the restored Lisa he sees as “her” letter to him is narrated, is also real).
Perhaps what makes Kaufman’s oeuvre stand apart is that he manages to restate his abiding themes in different and contrasting contexts, and it’s usually only as one contemplates them with hindsight that the similarities converge. Maybe, if he got to make more than one film every eight years, we’d become heartily sick of him going on and on and on again, but as it is, come 2024, his next picture ought to be every bit as rapturously received.