Anomalisa
(Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, 2015)

A scene from Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa {Photo: PARAMOUNT PICTURES}

A scene from Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa {Photo: PARAMOUNT PICTURES}

The Fregoli syndrome refers to a delusion whereby the afflicted view others as part of a ubiquitous whole, where minor modulations in appearance fail to conceal everyone’s complete and utter sameness. The term was named after Italian stage actor Leopoldo Fregoli and his protean impersonations. He was renowned for his capacity to swiftly change roles through the duration of a stageplay, modulating his voice and swapping costumes with theatrical gusto. This sort of delusion often renders the afflicted in a paranoid state, whereby the sufferer believes in something of a global agenda that conspires against them. John Du Pont, the subject of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, whose mental illness was relegated to the blanket term of “paranoid schizophrenia”, was believed to have suffered this condition.

The name of the hotel that Michael Stone (David Thewlis) enters in Anomalisa is The Hotel Fregoli.

Stone is a respected self-help author, touring with his book that outlines customer services tips. He’s in Cincinnati for the evening, his speech scheduled for the following morning, and is as morose and despondent as one can be. He calls his wife and his child. He does so vacantly, not pressing for questions; he’s lonely, the kind of loneliness that settles at the marrow of your bones. He calls and meets with an old flame. It’s been ten years, he notes – only to be corrected that it’s been 11. The encounter is a complete disaster.

The stop-motion animated world that Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman conjure is one where everyone is different yet all the same. A wave of sound opens the film, where muffled pleasantries are laid atop one another in a symphony of the mundane. It doesn’t take long before you realize that everyone that Stone encounters possesses an eerily familiar face and voice. All voiced by Tom Noonan (he’s credited as “Everyone Else”), the existential dread associated with this world of strangers is immediate. That is, of course, until an anomaly occurs, as Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) enters. Her sonic dissonance provokes the utmost curiosity from Stone as he’s smitten by her absolute singularity.

Anomalisa, like with most of Kaufman’s work, is fundamentally an existential journey of a modern man, and as such requires its audience to interact with it on a primarily emotional level. Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindSynecdoche New York, etc. are very personal films that probe the concerns of the day, the sort of concerns that amass and assemble and decorate a life, that ornate our pilgrimage on Earth. There’s a lot of humor to his films, there has to be, and yet it’s the kind of humor that never sacrifices the weight of Kaufman’s insights. In the case of Anomalisa, the complexion of the film alters through Kaufman’s deliberate use of repetitions– the film is riddled with sequences, from citations to Cincinnati’s local pastimes (chili and zoo-sized zoos) to Stone’s inability to enter his room without his cardkey giving him trouble, that are parroted at key moments throughout the picture. The result is often humorous during the moment, but walking away from the film, these moments linger and affect the way you perceive the world.

The struggle to identify and communicate with people has been a chief concern for Kaufman. Consider Synecdoche, New York’s Caden Cotard’s struggles to talk to his daughter, who is taken from him at an early age and is subsequently moved to a foreign country, where a language barrier (and a literal glass barrier) keeps the two apart. In Anomalisa, the world is filled with people who communicate through programmed responses that loom over the populous. Everyone talks the same and everyone says the same thing. It’s when someone truly interesting comes along, in Lisa, that the world seems a little less isolating. As Stone becomes increasingly fascinated by Lisa’s unique voice, he asks her to sing. Her response is a tender rendition of a Cyndi Lauper pop song. It’s an interesting choice, transforming the mundane pop track into something vital. Kaufman’s penchant for doubling occurs almost immediately, with Lisa and Michael supine on his hotel bed as she sings him the same track, this time in Italian. What follows is a remarkably tender moment, something that feels all too intimate for an animated film to have achieved, and all the more leveling given the scenes that would follow, where the perverse truth is that it is infinitely more interesting to want something than to actually have it.

Duke Johnson’s contributions to the film’s visual aesthetic and animation should not go unrecognized. From the immaculately smooth stop-motion animation to the expressive and fuzzy quality of the film’s puppets, Anomalisa is a significant directorial achievement that Johnson shares with Kaufman. But the finer details of Kaufman’s scripting, the sense of aloneness that it explores – the idea of giving up grand ambitions for living the most ordinary life imaginable - is revelatory. I felt Anomalisa at my nerve endings as something authentic and true, it scoured every inch of my being and froze me still. It means a whole lot to me. 

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