Over the next few weeks, I will be releasing a series of 10 essays about my top 10 films of the 2010s. These will not be comprehensive, lengthy essays about every aspect of each of the films, but will instead by shorter essays about single elements that I found worth discussing or interesting. These essays will not necessarily spoil every part of the film but they will be spoiling elements fairly freely. Obviously I recommend you see each of these films.
I don’t recall where I first heard it, but I remember someone once saying that all of Charlie Kauffman’s films can be summed up with “A man is in love with a woman, but it brings him no joy.” That’s somewhat true, but also misleading, partially because any description of a body of work that simplified is going to be reductive (if you boil everything down to it’s bones, everything looks like bones) but also because, within that description, Kauffman has created such diverse films as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, indeed, Anomalisa.
But the body of Kauffman’s work is not the subject here, nor is his tendency towards joyless romance (although that will certainly come up). No, I want to talk about Kauffman’s ability to weave his metaphors quite literally into his film. From Adaptation’s exploration of the relationship between the creation of art and the destruction of self, to Being John Malkovich’s look at the absurdity of celebrity culture, Kauffman often uses a semi-fantastical element to make a metaphor ridiculously literal. And one of the best examples is how Anomalisa uses a semi-fantastical element to literalize the lead character’s struggle with depression.
Right from the start, the film dramatizes the lead’s (whose name is Michael) struggle with depression via a unique expression of the Fregoli Delusion; Every character (aside from Michael, and one other) in the film has the same face and the same voice. Every face is the same generic white man’s face, every man, woman and child voiced in the placid, neutral tones of Tom Noonan (including a moment where he flatly sings The Flower Duet). The result is a flat world, devoid of color and life, perfectly emulating the way depression sucks the joy and life out of your life. Even a bitter, angry letter from a jilted ex-lover sounds flat and emotionless in the tone it’s delivered in.
Given the flat void that Michael is in, it’s no wonder he’s desperate for someone to inject some color into it. Hence when he hears Lisa’s voice in the hallways, the only character in the film aside from Michael with a distinct face and voice, he’s desperate to pursue her. He takes her and her friend out to drinks and eventually back to his hotel room, clearly just desperate to listen to a voice that doesn’t sound like everyone else.
And it’s here that I want to stop for a moment and address one of the things that I think makes this film special. See, the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Michael is depressed or the toll that’s taken on him, but it also doesn’t excuse him for the way that depression makes him act. Right from the start, Michael is characterized as self centered and pretentious, as well as oblivious to how his actions affect other people. It’s clear he’s hurt his ex-girlfriend deeply (he has the bitter letter she wrote him to prove it) but he still feels it’s appropriate to call her up, invite her to the hotel and fumblingly hit on her.
Which brings us to Lisa. I don’t have time to go into the various ways Charlie Kauffman has turned the so-called Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope on its head over the course of his career, but here the subversion is more subtle; Michael clearly regards Lisa as something akin to a MPDG, but in so doing it’s very clear that he’s completely ignoring who she is. Early on, when he catches a glimpse of a nasty looking scar on her face, he offers to kiss it, a suggestion that nearly sends her fleeing from the room; The scar is not a prop for him to show how sensitive he is, it’s a real part of her that has changed who she is, and how she reacts to other people. Similarly, Lisa isn’t a prop to cure his depression, she’s a real person, a person with her own sadness and loneliness, a person he is using to try and make himself feel better.
And like all attempts to cure your depression by using another person, it’s doomed to fail. In the morning, after the two of them have sex, while Michael is making absurd declarations of love, Lisa begins to exhibit behaviors that irritate Michael or set him on edge, like mentioning a local tourist attraction or just talking with her mouth full. And as these minor, normal, things add up, Lisa’s distinct voice and face begin to shift until she too is the generic Tom Noonan voiced everyman.
This is already a brilliant metaphor for how the realities of intimacy can damage and eventually destroy what seems to be a functional relationship, but in the broader metaphor for depression of the film, it serves another purpose; Depression, you see, can suck the joy and life out of things you normally enjoy, until all that’s left is the vague memory of happiness, floating in the same draining void as everything else.
When Michael returns home (having had something of a breakdown during a speech and, apparently, having split with Lisa), he finds that his wife has planned a surprise party for him and, for one brief moment, he tries to reach out to her and ask for help. For one moment, he tells his wife that he can’t recognize any of the people she’s invited and asks her who she is, who she is really. His wife, however, brushes it off, and Michael decides not to press the issue, casually letting it drop. As he says to his son, he’s not leaving. Where would he go?
That ending would be almost unbearably bleak, were it not for a short post-script; Lisa, driving back home with her friend, is writing Michael a letter. But unlike the letter from his ex earlier in the film, which was full of bitterness and anger, this letter is wistful and sweet. Lisa has her face and voice back and, moments before the camera fades to credits, we see that her friend also has a unique face.
Because of course she does. Everyone Michael met in the hotel has their own face and voice, even if Michael couldn’t see it. Everyone there, as Michael speech says, has had a day and a childhood. There is a world out there, outside of Michael’s ball of pain and loneliness, but until he can honestly admit what’s wrong with him and seek help, it’s a world he can never see. He’ll always be alone at his own party, watching a Japanese sex doll sing Momotaro’s Song.