Anomalisa- At the Existentialist Hotel


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Image from Trilbee Reviews

Written by Jo-Ann Lee

Edited by Holly Barr

This article is not going to be a review of Anomalisa, I do not see the value in that with a film like this. That is because I feel, as pretentious as it may sound, that Anomalisa is not so much a film as a lived experience, one that will leave the emotional state with you long after your memory of plot points has faded. This is a film that, as with many of Charlie Kaufman’s films, has something to say and the delivery method is secondary to that. That is, of course, not to detract from the beauty of the film. The stop motion is delicately and lovingly done, worth watching the film for alone, and the soundtrack creates a sublimely haunting backdrop to events. That, however, is not what I took away from the film and not where I feel it’s greatest value is found. So, I am not going to review the film but I do intend to subject the sparse line up of characters to a degree of scrutiny.

Anomalisa follows Michael Stone in the depths of a solipsistic and existential breakdown, he is lost and alienated as he walks through an airport full of happy reunions. It is this core theme of alienation and profound disconnect that resonates most strongly, with anybody that has ever felt alone in a sea of shiny happy people, will appreciate this well observed and artfully formed opening scene. It is around this point that the audience will become aware of the surreal and haunting style of the film, as to portray Michael’s disconnect from other people all other puppets have identical faces and are voiced by one man. He is unable to make a connection with anyone around him, his values are seen to be at odds with everyone else’s and he feels alone. This is a premise that I’m sure many can identify with and will have lived to some degree.

Where I believe the film loses some people is the unsympathetic character that has been created in Michael. Although Michael is very human, and humans are frequently rather flawed even if their self-awareness isn’t developed enough to notice, he is very difficult to empathise with. Not only is Michael flawed, but he also draws attention to aspects of human nature and components of the character of many, that are uncomfortable to reflect on. Michael see’s everyone as faceless, indistinguishable apart from the utility they offer, and is bored by their inane topics of conversation. This is not an attractive character trait, as I’m sure many involved in any customer facing industry will agree. It’s also a character trait that even polite people will exhibit. Ever been bored in a meeting with colleagues? Been too frustrated with the self-service till to properly acknowledge the assistance you just received? It’s this uncomfortable reflection that I feel turns many away from the film, especially when combined with the difficult and arrogant aura that Michael embodies. Viewers enjoy likeable main characters and do not enjoy being challenged.

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Image from Village Voice

To dismiss the film at this point is perhaps understandable, but to do so would mean missing out on the great philosophical ideas that are explored. It would also mean missing out on the character that I feel to be the true star, the eponymous Lisa.

The majority of the film takes place in an upmarket hotel, an environment entirely devoid of personality that adds new depths to those feelings of loneliness. After sitting in his room, conveniently identical to hundreds of others, we begin to see how bereft Michael has become. He is frustrated at everything, all of the room service options are inconvenient, and talking to his family is a chore to him. He manages to thinly veil the contempt he has for his family whilst on the phone, but the frustration and lack of connection to them is obvious, he’s contacting them purely out of obligation.

According to Sartrean existentialism, Michael is living his life in ‘Bad Faith’. His responsibilities have become a banal and quotidian burden to him, they are the values and chores assigned to him by others and he lacks the ambition to break free.

Feeling lost and adrift is something everyone will have to contend with, in Michael we see the consequences of failing to live life according to our own values. Michael has everything that most people aspire to, a family, a great job and lots of fans, but that’s not what he values. There’s a lot to be learnt from the situation, as following someone else’s dream is seldom going to lead to any meaningful satisfaction. Michael is very much struggling with the role imposed on him by his responsibilities and following the expectations of others. Unfortunately, whilst Voltaire apocryphally advocated we judge a man by his questions rather than his answers, Michael is without even the former, drifting like a plastic bag in a breeze.

At the height of Michael’s self-absorbed episode, while struggling to reconcile the person he would like to be with, the person that he is inhabiting in the moment, he is sent a flash of exceptional beauty capable of removing the shroud of banality.

That inspirational anomaly, in the world of vacuous monotony, happens to be the suitably novel tones of Lisa’s conversation.

This is where our character study extends from a fairly shallow, and some would say narcissistic, bitter man to someone with some hope. Lisa becomes the depth of human character, and positive role model to latch onto in the film. Though the lessons to be learnt from Michael, it definitely shouldn’t be neglected. Lisa has a definite arc of self-discovery throughout the film, she begins as a character that is relatable but flawed (aren’t we all), and transcends that state into someone that is still flawed, but capable and stoic in the face of it.

When we meet Lisa, it is because we have followed Michael’s desperate pursuit of her voice, involving him frantically knocking on random hotel doors. Whilst this is selfishly driven, erratic and potentially misguided behaviour, we can at least excuse him of the charge of having no direction.

As the correct door opens her traditionally attractive, or at least as alluring as a stop motion puppet can be, friend, Emily, is the most forward of the pair. This continues throughout the night as we understand that Lisa has an upsettingly low self-esteem, clearly accepting her position as ‘Emily’s friend’, whilst Emily continues to seize the day and get what she wants, ignorant of there being people less able to do so.

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Image from Film Comment

Lisa’s position is so sympathetically and lovingly crafted that it never feels like that most loathsome of emotions, self-pity. Whilst Michael’s self-pity and narcissistic tendencies make it almost impossible to like him, there is an instant compassion felt towards Lisa. Feeling inadequate and unable to chase loves and live life is an unenviable position to be in. This is in stark contrast to the not valuing anything but feeling entitled to it all. Lisa displays one of the most accessible audience surrogates here, saying very little but conveying a deep anguish that all, but the coldest hearted rogue will understand.

The evening comes to a close, Emily is confident of winning Michael’s affection and Lisa is ready to go home. A convention seemingly irrevocable at this point, of course the beautiful will flourish and the ordinary will retreat. This is the banal routine well established throughout all society.

Except Michael is not interested in Emily, the routine is subverted, and Lisa leaves with Michael.

The majority of the growth takes place in this penultimate chapter of the film, where Michael and Lisa conduct their affair and learn about themselves.

Lisa’s growth is far more mature than has been hinted, as she has portrayed herself through a lens of self-doubt. From the very beginning Lisa understands that this wonderful moment in time and space is special, and lovely, but that it will of course come to an end. This beautifully stoic way of viewing things may seem negative to people in Emily’s position, but this stoicism is hugely beneficial when approaching all aspects potential life. The film illustrates the protective and therapeutic role that a small dose of pessimism can offer. She tentatively accepts his gushing adoration’s in the most positive way, understanding that if that praise was to disappear the next day, she would still wake and life would continue. Pessimism is much derided and often greatly misunderstood, but it can be an overwhelmingly positive attitude. The world is not always going to be wonderful, and the expectation of it remaining so is harmful. The stoic pessimism provides a buffer from the harsh realities that are soon to come when that wonderful moment in time and space can no longer be grasped, it is the disparity between expectation and reality that hurts so deeply.

Over the same period of time, in the hotel room with Lisa, Michael undergoes a far more destructive journey, though the lesson to be learnt is as profound. We have to understand that whilst Michael perceives Lisa to be this anomaly in his life, a unique and immaculate flower in his barren wasteland of work and family, this is not the reality of the event. The anomaly occurs at the exact time when Michael was feeling at his most isolated and ready to escape, either an unbelievable moment of fortune or a glimpse into the reality of the evening. The reality being that the anomaly Lisa, his Anomalisa, is just another person that happens to be nearby being elevated to unattainable heights.

The entire episode for Michael was one of delusion, grandiosity and selfishness. For that evening he perceives Lisa as his escape, but is never once self-aware enough to consider his own emotions. As the night progresses Michael begins to feel a real connection to another person and desperately clings onto that moment. He quickly becomes infatuated with Lisa, making her responsible for his entire emotional state. The angst that Michael is experiencing by refusing to acknowledge his freedom, and the burden that places on him, is not adequately addressed. He doesn’t reconcile any of his issues with the people that were close to him or experience any personal growth, he simply drags another person into his emotional mess.

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Image from Trilbee Reviews

The results of these two approaches to life are evident in the closing chapter. The journey for Michael is not a very long one at all, in fact, he goes nowhere.

Anyone that has been truly content can remember a time when all they wanted to do was stay in that moment for eternity, for real life to remain at bay while they cling to that tangible moment. Anyone that has experienced that also recognises the futility in the clinging. The phone rings, the alarm clock beeps, the fridge empties, or in the case of this film, the dark pervading thoughts that had been banished return, and the illusion is shattered. The end of the film sees the rose tinted glasses Michael had on begin to fail as reality fades back. Everything that Lisa does begins to irk and, heartbreakingly, she becomes as anonymous as everyone else in the film. The illusion is shattered, reality prevails and the moment is lost forever. When Michael returns home to his family, he has really learnt nothing from the encounter and feels even more trapped than before.

When you consider the way that Lisa approaches the potentially distressing outcome of the evening, her pessimism allows her take events in her stride, and she is sufficiently insulated from harm. As a result, she is positively affected by the attention she received and her self-esteem is slightly elevated, as she avoids the trap of having expected anything more. There was no disparity between events and her expectations, so she had little to cope with or suppress with complex, harmful, cognitive processes.

We were presented with two very different ways of approaching life’s experiences and the divergence was illustrated, offering a genuinely useful insight into incredibly common and human flaws. Michael has trouble with accepting the freedom he has to change his own life, preferring to leave his happiness to the external and feeling bitter about this. We are shown the consequences of living life in bad faith, though this is an understandable, if not attractive, trait among many. When Sartre said that we are “condemned to be free”, this is the point that Michael has reached, feeling a great deal of anguish and deep resentment towards his life, and refusing to be accountable for his actions. One of the most poignant, and illustrative, moments of the film occurs when Michael returns home and his son asks him if he is going to leave him. The only reply that Michael can muster is “Of course not, Slugger. Where would I go?”. Lisa on the other hand transcends that angst and transitions towards a state of mature acceptance and self actualisation, recognising her freedom to act, and accepting the responsibility with that.

Anomalisa is essentially the Seinfeld of films, though significantly different in tone, it is a film about nothing. That nothingness is the key criticism people aim at the picture, and why I don’t feel reviewing the film to be beneficial. To criticise the ‘nothing’ may be fair when considering this as a film, it can be slow at points and many view it as depressing, but to leave it at that critique would be disingenuous and missing the greater impact of the film. Life is, of course, also about nothing and this is a haunting and beautiful insight into the very real human condition, something seldom touched on as lovingly as in Anomalisa. So, I decline to review the film, it’s obvious that I love it, and I whole heartedly recommend watching it, but giving it a rating would be missing the point. The score doesn’t matter, all that matters is the value you attribute to it, and that is the existentialist hotel in essence.

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