Human intimacy and the intricacies of this desire have always been a prevalent theme in Charlie Kaufman’s work from Being John Malkovich to Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he may have finally captured its most pure essence in the form of puppets. Anomalisa does not feature any human characters, but it does feature some of the most personal and human work ever accomplished by Kaufman.
Directed by Duke Johnson and Kaufman, with the script also written by the latter, the film follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a customer service guru who is coming to Cincinnati to speak at a conference. He is married with a child — but also has an overbearing sense of loneliness. All of the voices around him, including his wife and son, are the same. Uniqueness is unknown to him until he hears Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) speak for the first time.
The voice is fresh and new, carrying an almost angelic hum to Michael’s ears. This voice breaks through the monotony (or the characters all exclusively voiced by Tom Noonan) and becomes something pure to him, creating the ultimate goal of spending as much time with it as possible. All of this attention and worship is flattering, if not a little unsettling for Lisa, who struggles with body image and personality insecurities and does not believe at first that Michael would be so interested in her. “Don’t you mean, Emily?” she chirps when he asks her to accompany him to his room.
The choice to make Anomalisa a stop-motion animation seems almost imperative after viewing the film, which wouldn’t have worked in any other form. The humanity of these character breathes deeper with the defined edges of the puppet and the imperfect movements and twitches that instantly give away this trait. But that also works for the story, one that seems too tender and intimate to be re-enacted with human beings.
More than halfway through the film, Lisa and Michael begin to engage intimately after she sheds her fears with a song while he wipes away a tear. In the theater I sat in, the two people to the left of me began to giggle as the two puppets began to engage in intercourse. I was distraught. How could these people laugh at a moment so confidential…so close?
In that moment, as these two characters began to roll together, I was horrified that someone would laugh. While these characters are puppets, the almost hour prior to this moment showed that they were deeply layered and complicated beings that are breaking from their insecurities and worries and sliding into something sacred and true between the both of them.
But this intimate moment doesn’t come without selfishness, and this pitfall is also what brings tension and discomfort to the relationship between Lisa and Michael because the latter sees her as an escape — a ticket to getting out of the invariability of reality and into a fresh new perspective. Lisa doesn’t represent that. She is her own person with thoughts, feelings, insecurities, and fears, but Michael doesn’t necessarily see that.
Her voice is what drives him to her and it is what becomes the conductor of their relationship. As they begin to become intimate, he asks her to groan, almost directing her feelings and pleasures from the ensuing act and to also use her voice as the capital influence on his own pleasure. It is easy to be disgusted with Michael — it is true, he is an asshole — but there is also a tragedy to him. He is a man who is just seeking clarity in life and when he finally gets it, he grips too hard. Like a child excited to catch a bird, he squeezes too tightly and it is gone.
Kaufman and Johnson present this disconnect by creating a lack of focus in the camera as Lisa talks to Michael the next day — shifting back and forth between Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noonan — before his escape is finally over. Crushed, Michael lashes out against the world for silencing his happiness.
Anomalisa is at times challenging, but at others calming. Once again, Kaufman captures the stillness of life and the intimacy of human interaction. More so than before, he is grappling with the lines of happiness and selfishness, determination and desire, sacrifice and adventure. These lines work less as lines rather than fluid streams, and Anomalisa rides these streams with almost a perfect sense of navigation and curiosity.