Lisa isn’t really an anomaly at all – she’s a blip on Anomalisa protagonist Michael Stone’s endless cycle of alienation. Just when Michael thinks he’s made a connection with a unique person, he obscures her – fettering her away into the faceless, monotonous masses he thinks he sees every day. As she falls from his view, his depression deepens, his isolation widens, and he’s further swallowed by the vastness of his own emptiness. The big speech he delivers hours later hurtles between customer service cliches, existential musings, political paranoia, and startling confessions about the reach and depth of his crippling loneliness. By the end of the film, Michael Stone leaves the audience in even more despair than when he first meets us.
The only distinctive voice he can hear at the end is that of an antique Japenese Geisha doll singing a folk song that eerily resonates with his situation. It’s called “Momotaro’s Song,” and it’s about a man born from a peach who fights an island of demons. This is the true anomaly for him. This is the girl who cannot morph before his eyes into the disappointing flesh of humanity. Michael may tire of her as well, but she with her sterile mechanical function may offer him the only voice that doesn’t dissolve into the monotone drone of human murmurs.
Anomalisa is a fresh spin on a common storytelling theme: a disillusioned middle-aged man finds life tasteless until a lively young woman brings color back into his world. In this story, however, she isn’t the Goddess of Heaven (or a MPDG.) Michael thinks she is, though, in the magic moments when her charms are still new, when he can still detect her voice from the hum of the crowd.
Lisa is an ordinary girl, but Michael calls her extraordinary under the glare of night cocktails and haunting desperation. Michael, a successful customer service guru, is clearly manipulating Lisa and barrelling over her personal boundaries with indescrition, but it seems that he truly does believe what he’s saying to Lisa in the moment. He’s already forgotten Bella, another Lisa he confronted just hours before. Instead, Lisa is a Goddess to him, and because of his vivid, ego-fueled dream after his sex-romp, she’s still a Goddess to him in the morning. It’s only after he makes grand plans with her over breakfast that she very swiftly fades for him. Maybe it’s because this is the instant he realizes that she’s separate from him, another person who’s outside of him, just like everyone else.
She is just a human, after all. A human who talks with her mouth full, scrapes her teeth with her fork while eating, and too readily agrees to the proposals of a mad man after a hazy one-night stand. Probably the most scary human trait Lisa possesses is that she’s willing to let someone else into her life, that she’s capable of a kind of sharing and intimacy that Michael cannot conceive of. His repulsion of other people is exactly the cage he’s imprisoned by.
This has happened to him before. He’s not new to it. When he first arrived in Cincinnati, Michael was haunted by an angry letter from an ex. At first it seems that his break-up was recent, but the fabric of Michael Stone’s world starts to seem strange and unwieldy after he checks into the Fregoli Hotel. Michael appears to have some variation of a misidentification syndrome known as Fregoli Delusion: a condition where a person can be under the impression that different people are really the same person in disguise. For Michael, it’s not exactly that, it’s just that no one is distinguishable from anyone else.
Fregoli Delusion is related to the Capgras Delusion, where a person believes close loved ones are imposters. Often these types of delusions are related to brain damage, but some instances have been recorded where no known trauma is present. Fregoli is named after a 1927 case of a woman who believed actor Leopoldo Fregoli was imitating all the people in her life. Fregoli was known for creating the concept of a one-man show, and was adept at switching into innumerable characters during performances.
For Michael Stone, Fregoli may be more of a metaphor for how he sees the world rather than a diagnosis. Either way, aside from a small snippet from Lisa’s world at the end, the movie is totally from his point-of-view, and from Michael’s eyes, everyone has the same face (which is apparently Jared Leto,) and the same voice. While he’s an expert on how to treat people to achieve a certain outcome, he’s missing key parts of human interaction that can make us feel connected, even if we’re just making small talk in a cab or buying a latte. A great deal of our daily interactions, even with those close to us, are little performances. Focusing on the bit of fakery involved instead of relishing in and contributing to genuine encounters can feed a sense of paranoia.
Michael is all performance, like the puppet that he really is. But puppets are really just extensions of us, and, as this movie proves, their uncanny distance can allow them to be conduits to very deep, real human expression. Artifice is not just deception. Sometimes it’s all flash and distraction. Most of the time, when we are performing, when we put on a face or a costume, when we play a song, or draw a line, or tell a joke – we are trying to reach another person with these masks, these tools. We are trying to put a form to our formless thoughts and feelings. To show.
Michael, in making a career of tricking, has tricked himself into thinking there is nothing beneath it all, that there is no scale, depth, or wonder to the endless human play we all act in every day. He feels alone in his tragedies and triumphs because he refuses to participate in those of others.
While he says in his speech that every person is an individual, this isn’t how he sees the world. For Michael, he seems to be seeing everyone else as a mirror for what he fears he is – an empty, bland puppet. The world is boring to him because he’s boring. Other people are nothing to him because he doesn’t listen to them, doesn’t see them, has no compassion for them. He judges his young son for only caring what gifts he brings him, but doesn’t make an effort to offer his son another way to interact with him. He doesn’t know who his wife is, he doesn’t recognize his friends.
Michael’s caught in a hell, but the world isn’t hell for everybody, (certainly not the same hell.) When we see Lisa writing her letter to Michael while driving home with her friend, who, to Lisa, has her own distinct face and voice, we get a welcome different perspective than the nightmare Michael’s living. Lisa finds their encounter exciting and takes it as evidence that the world is a pretty wonderous place full of strange new things and unexpected opportunities to grow and feel. Michael, however, during their breakfast of fever and chills, reveals he thinks there is truly nothing to learn in life. “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself,” he says. For all of his Dale Carnegie-type advice, this line is the most revealing line for Michael. He probably once thought Bella was the only person with a true voice, then his wife, and possibly many more. But they disappear and recede into the dismal backdrop that crushes his life.
Lisa is truly the “one to walk in the sun,” while Michael is someone who blames the sun for just being another star.
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