Anomalisa is one of the the scariest films you’ll ever see. It is also one of the most human films you’ll ever see. It is 100% concentrated existential dread with a layer of unsettling psychological disorder on top. The brainchild of perennial oddball Charlie Kaufman and co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, Anomalisa follows familiar thematic avenues to previous Kaufman works, such as the loneliness of being human and the struggle to forge meaningful relationships, wrapped in his trademark surrealist wit.
The obvious difference to his previous films is that Anomalisa is animated: a choice that seems natural for Kaufman, much like it did for fellow idiosyncratic writer-director Wes Anderson when he made Fantastic Mr. Fox. However, while that film is ostensibly a children’s film as seen through the filter of Anderson’s distinctive style, Anomalisa is made for adults and could only have been made in the medium of animation for it to work. The animation is so uncannily human in both the physical design of the puppets and the naturalism of the movements that you can easily forget that you aren’t watching living actors.
They are manipulated masterfully and routinely display small but realistic habits, such as lifting a toilet seat with their foot or brushing hair behind an ear, that all add to the sense of life. The use of 3D printers to create the features of the characters allows for incredible amounts of detail to be poured into the cast, like veins in the backs of hands and individual teeth behind lips. Yet one obvious element of artifice is always present: the join between the lower and upper face is clearly visible on every character, always reminding you that they are not actually human. It’s a small but important aspect of the film that serves as a connection between its physical production and overarching narrative themes.
Anomalisa follows Michael Stone, voiced by the always–excellent David Thewlis, author of a book on customer service (and who is somehow a recognisable celebrity because of it) as he spends a night in a hotel in Cincinnati before speaking at a conference. The opening few scenes lay out one of the recurring features of the film: an almost uncomfortable focus on the mundane, played out basically in real time. Michael’s plane lands, he walks through the airport, is driven into the city in a cab, and checks into his hotel; it’s simply the tedium of travelling that in most other films is rushed past to establish location, but here is laboured over. The taxi ride is particularly revealing as Michael becomes increasingly irritated by the driver’s inane chatter and recommendations of the local chilli and the “zoo-sized” Cincinnati Zoo; he doesn’t have much patience for other people.
This continues when he checks into Hotel Fregoli and is taken to his room (all seen in one elegant long shot), with Michael giving only muted responses to the unsettlingly professional staff. But it is also at this point that you will probably begin to notice why he may not have much love for the company of other people; every person other than Michael looks and sounds exactly the same. It helps that Tom Noonan, best known as the serial killer in Michael Mann‘s Manhunter, voices all the other characters which adds a somewhat sinister edge to proceedings. Whilst the effect could be pulled off with digital effects using a live-action cast (Kaufman originally staged Anomalisa as a play), the effect is so elegantly achieved here that animation becomes the obvious choice to tell this story. It should be obvious to Michael that it’s impossible that everyone around him is identical, yet he seems to not notice what is staring him in the face, willfully or otherwise.
A clue to Michael’s lack of interest in others lies in the name of the hotel; the Fregoli Delusion is a rare disorder which causes the sufferer to believe that different people are in fact one single person who changes their appearance or adopts a disguise, sometimes in order to persecute the sufferer. Whilst it’s possible that he is genuinely suffering from the delusion, once you look at of Michael’s attitude and circumstances, it’s clear that Kaufman is using it as an allegory for a mid-life crisis, chronic depression or a good old-fashioned breakdown. Michael sees everyone else as identical because he just doesn’t care enough to register anything individual about them, even his own wife and child. An attempt to feel something by meeting up with an old flame who lives in the city ends in disaster, as not only does she look and sound like all the other Tom Noonans, but Michael repeatedly stuffs both his feet firmly into his mouth throughout their conversation.
When a new voice, that of Jennifer Jason Leigh, is heard through the door we are lurched out of this identikit world as suddenly as Michael is. The real heart of Anomalisa (and bulk of the story) is built around their brief encounter. Michael’s interactions with this other lone individual is one of the most achingly real representations of human beings ever committed to film – from their conversations that flow awkwardly but happily, before jarringly swerving into uncomfortable territory only to be clawed back again, to their endearingly awkward and bumbling sex. It’s searingly real, puppets or not.
What is so scary about Anomalisa is the feeling you come away with by the end; at some point in our life, most of us have probably felt as if we were experiencing some mild form of Fregoli Delusion, and that’s a horrible thing to come to realise. It’s a supremely selfish and arrogant belief to hold, that you are the only person with any sense of personality or uniqueness in the whole world, that all the people you cross paths with are identical drones, unthinkingly going about their tedious lives, contributing nothing to the world around them and actively irritating you in the process.
Of course, that is far from the case; everybody is their own self, with their own personalities and millions of things that make them unique, all just as impossibly complex as you are. And that is an even scarier thing to realise about the world. Nobody really knows who they are, or can possibly know who anyone else is, and have at some point become so overwhelmed by it that they just can’t begin to care about anyone else around them. We are all surrounded by people feeling that way. Like with so many of his scripts, Kaufman effortlessly cracks open your head and shows you how you work, whether you want to know or not, and it’s genuinely uncomfortable. More so it’s dazzling to watch, every single time.