Charlie Kaufman’s movies are always strange. So, going in for Anomalisa, I was prepared for strangeness – but even then, the strangeness unsettled me, as it was meant to. Kauffman uses the strange to exaggerate the common, but also to better highlight the distance of alienation.
In Anomalisa, humans are represented as dolls, a modern day version of automatons in Metropolis – less metallic and more capable of showing emotion. Their brains are seamed right at eye level (in one disturbing scene, Michael, the central character in the story tries to break this seam and look inside his head).
Almost the entire story takes place in hotel Fregoli. At the time of watching the movie I did not know this, but the name should have been a give-away to the story. Fregoli syndrome is the delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who is in disguise. This is the belief that Michael lives with – that all people around him are the same person. In his head, they sound the same. At the beginning, it is confusing. He is talking to his wife on the phone and her voice is a distinctly male voice. You wonder if he is gay, but the memory of a girlfriend haunts him from the very beginning. Then his little boy and this ex-girlfriend, and everyone else talk in the same voice. Slowly you begin to notice that the characters also look similar. The sameness becomes much more pronounced when he runs into a girl – Lisa, who is the only one with a different voice. For a mad night, he falls in love with her.
This movie could be about a person dealing with a disability (Fregoli syndrome), and may be as an audience you are asked to understand the difficult life of this paranoid person and sympathise with him, even if he is not likeable. But things are never so simple with Kaufman. In Michael’s delusion, you also see the alienated man who finds it difficult to connect with anyone. Who sees himself above everyone, and is yet desperately seeking to find someone unique to connect with. And mostly, he feels it is the others who are at fault, for they all see things in the same mundane way, are part of a system which wants to engulf him. He tests them from the borders, but then distances himself, afraid of being sucked into the “normal” way of life.
In a slightly tangential manner, this movie reminded me of Clarke’s story Childhood’s End, which is one of my favourite stories about existential dilemma (I have shared a few thoughts on this here). While the question in Childhood’s End is much larger and transcends the boundaries of humanity and even planets – the dilemma of keeping your identity versus being part of a greater whole is one we face regularly. Kaufman’s Michael has chosen one extreme:to safeguard his own identity at the cost of complete alienation. There are others – the yes men or the submissive spouse, who adopt the other extreme of losing their identity completely in a bid to be accepted. But somewhere, we all lie on a spectrum of these two opposing forces.
But in the end, despite having some sympathy with Michael’s dilemma, I find it hard to like him or understand his stubbornness. He has chosen to stay alienated, and is continuously unhappy with his choice. He is unable to let go of neither the need to connect nor the need to stay aloof – something that makes me see him as a failed character.