For someone widely regarded as one of the finest writers produced by Christendom in the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis was exceedingly conversant in the psychology of hell. He most famously exhibited this ability in The Screwtape Letters with his probing of the minds of hell’s rulers, but he was even more insightful when it came to the minds of hell’s subjects. In Lewis’s imagination the damned prefer misery; they wouldn’t have things any other way. Far from the hot-blooded divine retribution of Dante, Lewis’s conception of perdition is stultifying isolation from others, freely (if unhappily) chosen. The Great Divorce depicts the underworld as a dreary town whose limits are constantly expanding as its denizens build houses farther and farther away from their annoying neighbors. Hell, for Lewis, is a depressing suburb, with each resident ensconced at the center of his or her own universe.
Filmmaker Charlie Kaufman has made a career out of telling the stories of such people, whether he’s sitting in the director’s chair or just penning the screenplay. The defining characteristic of the Kaufman protagonist is his1 perpetual dissatisfaction; he is constantly aware of how all things (including himself) fail to live up to his expectations. And each has his own skewed method of coping. Being John Malkovich’s Craig utterly subjugates another person for his own gain. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Joel resorts to radical brain surgery to make himself forget his manifold disappointments. Synecdoche, New York’s Caden tries to imprison life within art, taming it into a form he finds more agreeable and meaningful. In each case, the Kaufman hero is unable to accept the world as it is and tries to assert himself over it. Things usually don’t end well for these men.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis), the protagonist of 2015’s Anomalisa, is the latest version of this character. Other people only irritate and depress Michael, who is cursed with the diabolically ironic profession of customer-service guru. As the film opens on his business trip to unglamorous Cleveland, he checks into the sort of upscale hotel whose pristine rooms and hallways inspire not relaxation but anxiety. Michael’s ennui leads him to call up an ex for some rote business-trip adultery—but even that can’t drag him out of his funk, and he scuttles the affair before it gets started. Why bother? To him, even his old flame is just like everyone else.
Kaufman’s2 innovation in Anomalisa is his literalization of this perception of Michael’s. Michael does not merely find other people uninteresting and dully similar in their behavior; to him, all of them (from his own son to his old girlfriend) look identical. As a stop-motion animated film using puppets, Anomalisa is able to depict the non-Michael characters as possessing the same voice (provided by a versatile Tom Noonan) and the same bland Caucasian face. Kaufman and his co-director, Duke Johnson, even call attention to the dramatic device by leaving the seams in their puppets’ faces visible, underscoring the fact that we are observing a prefabricated reality. The implication of this obvious artifice is that Michael Stone’s skewed perspective molds the identities of other people, just as it molds his sense of self.
Thus, Kaufman situates us right between the ears of a lost soul. We look through Michael’s eyes; we see and hear only what he sees and hears. It’s a gutsy gambit, given that it is always more comfortable to depict the behavior of broken people rather than burrow into the mind that engenders that behavior. Cinema, with its sensuous immediacy, runs a risk when aligning character and audience perspectives so closely because of how unpleasant it can be to spend extended periods of time inside the brain of a troubled person. But in Anomalisa we must do so in order to proceed to the next circle of Kaufman’s Inferno. To paraphrase John Goodman’s infernal salesman in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, Charlie Kaufman will show you the life of the mind.
In Michael Stone’s case, it’s not much of a life at all. He lives in the grip of what ancient Christianity labeled acedia: the sin of apathetic despair. The twelfth-century English monk Gilbert of Hoyland described acedia this way: “The spirit is worn out both by its boredom and by loathing for this boredom. Both feelings are repugnant: to have no taste for what you have chosen, and to experience what you loathe.”3 Michael is incapable of seeing other people as unique, interesting individuals, and his punishment is to exist in a world populated solely with monotonous marionettes. He is incarcerated in a prison he constructed himself.
Like the damned souls in The Great Divorce, though, Michael is offered a way out of this shabby hell when he encounters Lisa (voiced with heart-melting vulnerability by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Hers is the only voice in the world that doesn’t sound like Tom Noonan, and her face is her own. When Michael, staring at himself in the hotel bathroom’s mirror, first hears her voice, the animators cause his seamed puppet-face to momentarily judder and become unstable, as if something is trying to break through his haze of self-pity and boredom. Meeting Lisa literally shakes him up.
Naturally, Michael throws himself at her like a drowning man clutching at a lifeguard. This development has an element of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope—the clichéd cinematic scenario in which a quirky, free-spirited woman teaches a sad-sack male protagonist to love life again4—but Kaufman subverts the trope by making Lisa resolutely ordinary. She’s not particularly quirky, free-spirited, or even intelligent. She is meek almost to the point of being a doormat (a lucky thing for Michael, since no confident woman in her right mind would tolerate him for more than a few minutes). But she is fully herself, which is an oasis in the desert to Michael. He eagerly embarks on an affair with her.
It’s not often that a movie’s explicit depiction of adulterous sex qualifies as a moment of genuine grace, but Anomalisa manages the feat. The film spends the majority of its time within the suffocating confines of Michael’s self-centeredness, so when it finally pulls back to show us the intimate connection between two individuals, the experience is revelatory. The act of sex is depicted in all its tenderness and awkwardness, and Michael and Lisa reveal themselves not as puppets in a parable but as flesh-and-blood human beings. They are deeply flawed (after all, they are engaging in sexual sin), yet they are also capable of great warmth—even of emotional heroism. As they fumble in bed together, we suddenly realize that we want the best for these people. There is hope for both of them.
The moment, sadly, does not last.
The most sobering episode in The Great Divorce involves a lost soul, identified only as “the Dwarf,” who arrives in heaven accompanied by a taller ghost on a chain, called “the Tragedian.” The Tragedian is present only as a mouthpiece for the Dwarf’s grandiose self-pity. A tug-of-war ensues when the Dwarf’s wife, who now resides in the heavenly country, seeks him out in an effort to persuade him to stay in paradise. The price of admission for him is to leave the Tragedian behind, but he’s lived so long with his carefully cultivated misery that he can’t bear to give it up:
“Frank! Frank!” she cried in a voice that made the whole wood ring. “Look at me. Look at me. What are you doing with that great, ugly doll? Let go of the chain. Send it away.” [. . .]
I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy.5
The Dwarf struggles against joy and prevails, refusing the offer of grace and clinging to his Tragedian. In the end, he is absorbed into his creation, and only the Tragedian remains.
Michael Stone, too, is offered a way out of his self-imposed isolation. Almost from the outset, Anomalisa offers little hope that Michael and Lisa’s relationship will have a rosy outcome. Still, it does permit the possibility that Michael can learn from his experience, that his encounter with the “anomaly” of Lisa’s personhood will show him that she’s not an anomaly at all. Perhaps he will slowly emerge from his dark cave, blinking in the sunlight; and he will see others with their own faces, their own non-Noonan voices. Perhaps.
This is where Kaufman’s decision to position the viewer right in the center of the drab labyrinth of Michael Stone’s mind pays off. In The Great Divorce, Lewis is content merely to observe the behavior of his lost souls, so his story’s events are vivid and instructive but kept safely at arm’s length. But Anomalisa gives us full access to the inner workings of Michael’s psyche, and in doing so it elicits two reactions from us. First, we desperately hope that Michael will free himself from his small, sad hell. Second, we are almost certain that he will not.
This mingling of hope and fear is reflected in the surreal sequence immediately following Michael’s night with Lisa. Out of nowhere, the hotel’s manager summons Michael to his cavernous basement office and, once they are face to face, proclaims his undying love for Michael. Understandably, this weirds Michael out, and he flees the manager’s office only to find that all of the hotel’s employees also love him. The entire world, it seems, is opening its arms to him, begging him to love it back.
That this is a horrifying situation for Michael speaks volumes about him. Faced with the prospect of a world that wants only to love and be loved in return, he panics. In a callback to the facial instability he experienced upon first hearing Lisa’s voice, the lower half of his face fall off completely, exposing the puppetry and wires beneath his façade. It is a nightmarish inversion of the pleasant disruption that Lisa brought to his life. Intimate connection with an entire planet of individuals threatens his very sense of self.
This is Michael Stone’s terrible struggle against joy.
His wondrous connection with Lisa begins to disintegrate soon thereafter. And the decline doesn’t stop there. Kaufman presents us with a dismaying portrait of a person who has become so comfortable with his own sin that he actively chooses hell. Like the lost souls of The Great Divorce, Michael finds connection with other people to be too uncomfortable and inconvenient. He continues his rejection of the warmth offered by others until he is left with nothing but a great, ugly doll purchased from a sex shop next door to his Cleveland hotel. The final image we have of Michael is him sitting alone with that doll while a party hums all around him. As Michael gazes at the cracked little doll singing to him in its cracked little voice, it’s as if we are witnessing a caterpillar sealing itself within its cocoon. The only difference is that Michael is unlikely ever to emerge from his self-imposed isolation again.
If Anomalisa ended there, it would be a fairly standard moral fable (albeit a bleak one). But Kaufman ends his film on Lisa, not on Michael. Lisa—dowdy, self-conscious, thoroughly unremarkable—is lifted up at the end. In her final line of dialogue, she is literally glorified. It is she, not Michael, who makes the decision not to struggle against joy but to accept it. She is the one who is able to accept the world’s offering of itself. The meek shall inherit the earth, indeed.
1 The main characters in Kaufman’s films are invariably men. He nearly always populates his stories with well-rounded women characters as well, but they rarely receive the same focus as the male characters. Given how relentlessly unflattering and self-critical Kaufman’s portraits of his protagonists tend to be, however, this is not necessarily a bad position for his women to be in.
2 Duke Johnson co-directed the film with Kaufman, but because Anomalisa began its life as a theater piece written and directed by Kaufman alone, it’s more expedient to write about the film as a Kaufman creation. Auteurist film criticism often inadvertently leaves co-directors and other crew members out in the cold, and one hopes that Duke Johnson, if he is reading this, will not be offended by yet another essay that gives Kaufman the lion’s share of credit for a remarkable collaboration.
3 See Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York: Riverhead, 2010), 290–291.
4 See Nathan Rabin, “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown,” The AV Club, January 25, 2007, http://www.avclub.com/article/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-emeli-15577.
5 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 126, 129.