“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”
Ophelia’s stupid response to Hamlet’s question concerning the discourse between honesty and beauty was the stressor that put an end to their budding romance. A similar lapse in conversational originality kills the magic between Michael and Lisa in Charlie Kaufman’s roto-scoped drama, “Anomalisa.”
“In these times of compassion when conformity’s in fashion / Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in” sings Bob Dylan in “Foot of Pride,” an out-take from his 1983 album, “Infidels,” a song that may well be going through Michael’s head from the start to the finish of Kaufman’s film.
It begins on an airplane. Michael is reading an old letter from a former lover, who has the face of a woman and the voice of a man. At first, it seems Michael is gay, but after awhile we realize that all the characters in the film, except for Michael and Lisa, are voiced by the same actor. When Michael arrives in Cincinnati, where he is scheduled to give a lecture on customer service, he is greeted by a taxi driver and a hotel desk clerk in that same platitudinous voice, their prefabricated words and phrases designed for robotic conversation. At this point, it seems the film’s theme is the lack of human communication in the world of business travelers, but Kaufman’s target here is more deeply insidious than that.
Michael is attracted to Lisa because of her voice. There is nothing special about her voice except its uniqueness. In a world of conformity and and stock phrases, her voice and her words are her own. At least until she falls in love, at which point she becomes as trivial as Hamlet’s Ophelia, enthusing about a trip to the zoo in the same words as used by the taxi driver, and in a dual voice in which that conformist male drone begins to overwhelm her anomalous feminine register. Is Kaufman insinuating that love destroys one’s individuality, reducing the unique person to an anonymous mass that embraces conformity in the desire to bond with another anonymous mass? It would seem so.
Unlike other roto-scoped films that transform real actors into cartoon figures, Kaufman does not use the same people as models for both the figure and the voice. We hear David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason-Leigh in the roles of Michael and Lisa, but the characters are embodied by two very average, dull-looking people. This adds another degree of alienation to our relationship with the characters. We never fully understand them, as they could as easily be reflections of ourselves as well as characters to whom we feel superior.
I have had an aversion to Kaufman’s philosophical bent since his his script for “Being John Malkovich” was produced in 1999. He struck me as a creepy misanthrope whose reliance upon conventional film structure diminished the possibilities inherent in his concepts. Whereas most of his scripts get worse as they go along, “Anamolisa” keeps us guessing until the end. Like the films of Atom Egoyan, things are rarely as they initially appear, and even when we think we have figured it all out, there remains something that keeps yanking our ear lobes. In “Anamolisa” it is Lisa singing the Cyndi Lauper song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” What is Michael hearing that makes him fall in love with her? And why, when she sings it a second time, this time in Italian, does the enchantment begin to fade? Possibly the Italian version seems like a mere mimicking of the words, while he previously believed her first rendition was a personal, heartfelt interpretation, unlike nothing he had ever heard before. But why would he have felt that? It did nothing but embarrass me.
And from that point until the end, I have no clear understanding of why Michael behaves the way he does….at his lecture, with his family, without his dream. I have no idea what is going on in his head. But I keep recalling that line of dialogue from 1986’s nihilistic murder tale, “The River’s Edge,” when Samson is asked why he killed his girlfriend Jamie. He coldly answers, “She was talking shit.”