I had no idea what I was in for when I walked into the Coffman Memorial Union theater with my roommate to see a late-night movie. All we knew about Anomalisa was that it was a stop-motion film, it was critically acclaimed, and the main character was voiced by the actor more commonly known as Remis Lupin from Harry Potter (less commonly known by his birth name: David Thewlis).
We figured it’d be a heart-warming rom-com. Perhaps a touching story about finding love in your 50’s. Boy were we wrong.
The creators of Anomalisa, Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, have been praised for making a film that critics have called a “masterpiece” and has been herald as “the most human film of the year.” But I would rephrase that statement. If the only humans on Earth were self-serving, middle-aged, white men, then yes, Anomalisa would be “the most human film of the year.” The main character, Michael, is a privileged and unsatisfied man determined to rediscover the spark in life that makes it worth living – even if that means abandoning his wife and child. I should hope most people can’t relate to that. The film Anomalisa ingeniously captures the manic downward spiral of a middle-aged man grappling with the mediocrity of his life, but not without undermining the agency of the female love interest and further playing into the problematic passive female/active male paradigm.
Anomalisa is one of those rare films you absolutely love to hate, and I mean that in the highest regard. The film is unapologetically real and often hard to swallow, but sometimes, that’s the most accurate depiction of the mundanity of life. The plot follows Michael as he drones through the monotony of his day to day life complaining, fussing, and deflecting the blame for his unhappiness onto others. Michael’s easier to hate than love. But we’re not supposed to champion Michael, we’re supposed to despise him – and that’s what makes the film so interesting.
In the first shot of the movie we see Michael on a plane reading a note of some sort. He doesn’t look like much: slightly haggard, winded with age, tired eyes, greyed hair. Not exactly the type of guy women fawn over. However, we quickly discover that the letter Michael is reading is, in fact, a forlorn love letter from a mistress he’s left long ago. But the most shocking part about this scene wasn’t Michael’s blasé reaction to it or even the heartbreaking letter itself, it was the voice used for the woman reading it in Michael’s head. It was a man’s voice (and an annoying one, at that). As the story unfolds, we realize that everyone Michael interacts with has the same, monotone, male voice regardless of their gender: his cab driver, the man sitting next to him on the plane, even his own wife and child.
When Michael runs into a charmingly awkward woman named Lisa who -gasp- has a different voice than everyone else, the plot picks up instantly. Lisa is a breath of fresh air to Michael. She’s kind-hearted, quirky, naive, and apologetically insecure. She falls for him because, sadly, he’s one of the only men who has ever made her feel “special.” And in turn, Michael becomes increasingly infatuated with Lisa because she’s “different than any woman he’s ever met.” I know, I rolled my eyes, too.
In Michael’s eyes, Lisa represents the missing spark he’s been searching for and a chance at breaking out of the mundane life he leads. She’s an anomaly, more importantly his anomaly – hence the nickname “Anomalisa.”
What makes Michael and Lisa’s relationship so intriguing is that it was doomed from the start – and the audience could sense it. I could feel the tension in the theater thicken as their frantic love story unfolded like a meter running out of time. Michael’s mid-life crisis unravels at the seems when he starts hallucinating and fantasizing about leaving his job and family to run away with Lisa, and not once do we get Lisa’s perspective on the crazed situation. She’s simply along for the short-lived, fever dream-like journey. This is exemplary of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” where she states that often in films, “The man controls the fantasy and also emerges as a representative of power in a further sense: as a bearer of the look of spectator” (Mulvey 838). In Anomalisa there is never a doubt that Michael is the one controlling the fantasy and also taking on the role of the spectator, viewing Lisa as his object of pleasure.
The problematic themes of female objectification in Anomalisa don’t stop there. In McCabe’s “Structuring a Language of Theory” she discusses the severity of “simultaneous figural identification” with female characters in films. Essentially, this states that the female spectator in the film can only adopt both the “active and passive positions in relation to desire: desire for the other, and the desire to be desired by the other” (McCabe 35). This implies that a female is only allotted an active role in the narrative when she’s lusting for attention from a man. Anomalisa is saturated with this inherently sexist, passive female/active male paradigm. The character Lisa only exhibits (dishearteningly timid) signs of agency when she confesses her fear of not being considered “desirable” by men. Her low self-esteem feeds into this deep-seated insecurity and catalyzes her towards Michael even more so. In a sense, they lead each other down tragically misguided paths, infatuated with the idea of one another, rather than the actual person.
Here’s a clip showcasing the three voice actors in the movie: Michael (David Thewlis), Lisa (Jennifer Leigh), and the voice of Lisa’s friend/the voice of every other character in the movie (Tom Noonan).
McCabe also writes that often in films, “woman operates as a traumatic presence that must be negated” and she “exists only as a sign that has meaning for men” (McCabe 20). This theory is perhaps the most crucial when applied to Anomalisa. Lisa exists solely as a sign of escape to Michael. He’s infatuated with her voice because it’s different; it symbolizes an escape path from the mundane. Towards the end of the film, Michael starts to hear Lisa’s uniquely feminine voice morph into the droning, monotone, male voice of everyone else. At this point the audience had a unanimous “ah-ha!” moment: Michael’s past mistresses were once “different” in the way Lisa was. When he first meets an intriguing woman, she starts off talking with a beautiful, unique voice, but eventually the sheen wares off and her voices blends in with the rest. The metaphor of Lisa’s voice changing symbolizes Michael’s fleeting and misguided infatuation. This was truly ingenious on the creators’ parts.
Seeing Anomalisa at the student theater on campus was an interesting experience because you wouldn’t think a movie this dark and dense would attract college students, and it didn’t – only around thirty people showed up. But the movies at Coffman are free, and our food and drinks added up to a whopping total of $4, so I can understand why a handful of film buffs take advantage of the deal every week regardless of what movie is showing.
The small audience size actually enhanced the overall movie experience for me. During incredibly uncomfortable scenes (hint: one, long, painfully awkward, stop-motion sex scene) the audience gasped in unison and murmured jokes. And when the film ended, everyone immediately turned to each other with similar “WTF DID WE JUST WATCH?” expressions on their faces. Anomalisa is certainly a movie made with the intention of sparking existential, in-depth conversations long after the credits have rolled, and it certainly had that effect on my friends and I. Hours later, we were still discussing Anomalisa’s themes of mundanity, mid-life crises, infidelity, and infatuation with the idea of a person. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.
McCabe, J. (2012). Structuring a language of theory. Feminist film studies: writing the woman into cinema (pp. 14-36). Columbia University Press.
Mulvey, Laura. (1999). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (pp. 833-44). New York: Oxford UP