Chris Wilson returns with his Film Scratches column, where he will be discussing all kinds of movies and digging deeper…
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) swallows a pill on a claustrophobic flight, trapped between a sea of familiar faces and the sepia-tinged clouds. Where he sits on the depression scale the viewer never discovers, but his behaviour suggests a dissociative state. He finds no excitement in the people he meets or the places he goes; his situation made the duller by travelling to Cincinnati – known for its world-class zoo with “whatchamacallit, endangered species”, a quote-unquote toy shop, and “chilli like you never had”.
The crawl along the airport escalator, the boorish taxi driver, the painstaking meal order… Charlie Kaufman continues in the vein of 2008’s impenetrable Synecdoche, New York of treating English like a foreign language. We share Michael’s anger and frustration at basic conversations being aimless and seemingly never-ending. Michael despises everyone else – ironic given he’s in Cincinnati for a talk on customer service – but in a world inhabited by puppets who literally look like his girlfriend from ten years ago and speak with the same monotonous, genderless voice (Tom Noonan), that’s pretty understandable.
Michael has an unspoken fear of conforming into this zombie-like army. His face is slit along the eyes and the edges as though it can be lifted up and easily interchanged. At one point, he has a nightmare where his jaw drops off; in another his movements resemble claymation. Anomalisa threatens to break out into a dystopian or horror film, but what transpires is a riveting thesis on self-absorption. No enemy actually exists other than Michael’s own irrational perspective and unattainable goals.
When he stumbles across Lisa Hessleman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who crucially does not assume the form of his ex-girlfriend, Michael treats it as love at first sight. She carries the same insecurities and neuroticism as him, questioning often why a guy like Michael would fall for her. Little does she realise he wants her for her voice and looks alone. He encourages a wispy rendition of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ so he can enjoy the novelty of hearing a genuine female voice again. Lisa radiates among the browns and yellows colouring Michael’s environment, but the romance is otherwise awkwardly naturalistic. Their time together fits alongside a cutaway of Michael taking a piss – incidental and of the moment; nothing that mirrors the definitive happy-ever-after of Irene yelling “(he) loves me” in the cover version of My Man Godfrey playing on the hotel television.
Michael’s desperation for happiness means he immediately consummates the relationship. The scene is prolonged and anti-Hollywood: two plump, middle-aged bodies fumbling; forgoing a montage in favour of lingering beyond what’s comfortable to the average viewer. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson pull the camera back until they become dwarfed by their generic hotel room. It transforms Michael’s moment of triumph into a meaningless gesture, as significant as the lamps beside the bed. The quick close-up of Michael confirms its futility. He barely shows passion and, like everything else, he soon just goes through the motions.
The next morning, Michael regrets his grand plan of leaving his wife and kid and starting anew with Lisa. He grows agitated as she clatters her fork against her teeth while eating scrambled eggs. Those noises send his brain into a panic. It’s not the fork itself bothering him, rather the recurrence of mundane details wakes him up. Michael ascertains Lisa is not the fix for his extensive personal troubles. There and then, he allows her voice and face to fade into his ex-girlfriend’s, her previous beauty bleached into the morning sun.
Michael yearns for the days before his depression. It’s telling his preceding nightmare, where an army of ex-girlfriends conspire against him, concerns his breaking free from the shackles of the past than the fear of losing Lisa. He lets Lisa slip away as he’s unwilling to see beyond his psyche. However, Michael does not realise this. Lost for an explanation, he rants throughout his customer service talk, dwelling on loneliness and then pointing the finger at the system itself. Michael apparently finds humankind ugly because: “The president is a war criminal… They’ve intentionally destroyed the public education system; it’s easier to manipulate dumb works and soldiers”. Why would he say something like that? It’s always easier to blame an external force for your own problems.
The only other figure without his ex-girlfriend’s face is a Japanese animatronic sex doll bought from the aforementioned “toy” shop. As Michael stares at the doll near the end of his subdued yet self-destructive journey, its significant becomes clear. It represents the exotic and unknown; a curio from a culture too unique for homogeneity. And, thinking about the doll gives Michael the chance to retreat into his mind, at least for a while longer. Maybe he can fantasise for once, in a place anywhere but here.
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