The great thing about Anomalisa is that a lot of people wrote about the film. There are some great Reddit discussions about it. Some great articles.
Most of them discuss the concepts of depressions, being lost, the Fregoli delusion, the meaning of the Japanese doll, the idea of people as automatons, perception of the world, etc.
And these are core concepts of the film. The Fregoli delusion is when you believe everyone is one person. The hotel is named Fregoli for crying out loud. And everyone other than Michael and Lisa have the same voice and the same face. It isn’t hard to then connect Michael’s singularity of everyone around him with his depression and loneliness.
A lot of people make the case that the main takeaway is to show the corrupted worldview of Michael Stone. That this maybe says something about trying to find value from the external when the real value has to come from the internal.
I like the interpretations I’ve read and agree with them. But there’s one thing I haven’t seen discussed, and it’s something that I believe to be the core of the film.
When Michael meets with Bella, he blurts out to her that he got scared and ran. That he’s been running for a long time. That’s what no one’s discussed.
Him running has some huge implications on the film and Michael himself. Ultimately, it should have big implications for you as well.
Michael’s fearful heart
When Michael calls Bella, he mentions that he didn’t recognize her voice. This implies that the last time he spoke with her she sounded unique. Not the same Fregoli voice he’s been hearing from everyone else. Except now she’s like everyone else. This rules out the idea that he ran because she succumbed to the Fregoli-ing that we witness with Lisa at breakfast. He ran because he’s a frightened man.
That leads us to a question: why is he frightened?
This is where things get pretty interesting.
We already know that he hears everyone speak with the same voice. And he sees them have the same face. We know from his dream that he fears this. He fears the Fregoli hoard will consume him, which is why in the dream he grabs dream Lisa and tries to run away with her. He doesn’t want to be part of the Fregoli hoard. Another one of “them”. He wants to be unique.
Yet, in the dream, Michael’s face falls off to reveal a robot underneath. This is the climax of a mini-arc that had built a few minutes before. Michael, in the reality of the film, stands before a mirror, looking at himself. It’s during this self-examination that his reflected face goes haywire. It twitches a hundred different expressions. Rapid fire. Michael has no control over it. When it stops, he notices a gap in his skin, and begins examining it with his fingers. It’s a seam, a space. What’s under the skin? What horrible truth is Michael about to encounter?
None. It turns out. Because that confrontation with himself is interrupted by him hearing another voice. Not a Fregoli voice but a unique one. When he says, “Somebody else,” it’s not clear if he’s referring to himself—as in someone else who is original like he is—or grouping this voice with Bella and maybe his wife (if he ever saw her as an individual rather than part of the Fregoli), this group of women he has cared about for brief windows of time. This leads Michael into the hallway, knocking on doors, until he encounters Lisa.
Lisa. Lisa. Lisa.
What follows with Lisa is an experience that sends Michael’s soul into a blissful state. He adores Lisa. Can’t hear her speak enough. They connect, emotionally and physically. What joy!
Except his dream interrupts this. If we believe that dreams reveal the subconscious, especially in a movie, then this dream means that Michael already knows the truth about his confrontation with the mirror: inside he’s nothing special. He’s just another machine. A manufactured thing. His humanity nothing more than artifice.
The next morning, what happens? While having breakfast with Lisa, Michael panics. Over a few minutes, Lisa goes from this angel to one of the Fregoli hoard. We hear her voice transform, deepening, losing it’s musical quality. Her face is obliterated by the sun shining over her shoulder, robbing her of her unique features. Michael zeroes-in on superficial things. How she bites the fork. How she chews. Her confidence in talking to him like a peer, a confidence he reduces to bossiness. When she mentions the zoo, it recalls for Michael the conversation with his annoying cab driver. Lisa’s charm is lost. What’s Michael do? He runs away from her.
Lisa and Bella then become bookends to the main story. The dynamic between Bella and Michael had been so mysterious in the beginning. But after what happens with Lisa, we have more context. Both women had something with Michael they thought was special. Michael then ditches each of them. He’s too insecure about himself to accept them. So he runs.
Face to face with god
I’m fairly convinced that the only reason Michael “heard” Lisa is because he didn’t like what he was about to find out about himself. That moment in the mirror was like someone offering you to know the truth of whether or not there’s a god and an afterlife. What a moment. You either confirm everything you believed to be true…or you find out everything you believed is false. What’s scarier in that moment? That there is a God? Or that there’s no God? Michael’s about to come face to face with God, who, in this case, is his own soul. But he runs away from that truth. Instead, he “hears” Lisa and pursues her, suddenly needing to find comfort in someone outside of himself.
By the end of the film, Michael has no hope in anyone. He’s abandoned Lisa. He’s home with his family, but you can tell he isn’t thrilled about his son. He’s being a jerk to his wife. He doesn’t recognize any of his friends who are there for a party celebrating him. Our last vision of Michael is him sitting with the mechanical woman that’s a Japanese sex toy.
What a strange sentence to write. “Our last vision of Michael is him sitting with the mechanical woman that’s a Japanese sex toy.”
The mechanical woman should ring alarm bells for obvious reasons.
She calls us back to Michael’s dream, where Michael’s face falls off to reveal the mechanical jaw underneath.
She calls us back to the mirror, to the face twitching outside of Michael’s control. To the seam in his face that hid something he didn’t want to confront.
Now here Michael is, listening to this mechanical woman sing a song, staring at her while she stares back at him.
This, to me, is the ultimate conclusion to the mirror scene. The mechanical woman is, in a way, the true reflection of Michael. At least a reflection of what he fears himself to be: nothing more than a machine, designed to perform a certain function, which, in his case, is spouting platitudes about how to improve customer service.
That fear of being a machine is what we see play out in his big talk to the customer service industry. It’s a bland, boring, cliche speech and Michael interrupts himself constantly to reflect on the human condition, politics, himself in very emotional ways. But then he’ll gather himself and return to his robotic delivery of the customer service generalities.
Is Michael a man trying to keep from becoming machine, or a machine trying to become a man?
Either way, what we see is that he’s unable to have that conversation with himself. He can’t stare into the mirror too long without freaking out. But he can stare at this mechanical woman, singing the Momotarō song. That song happens to be about a boy who comes from heaven and grows up to fight and defeat a bunch of demons.
Defeating the demons is something that it seems Michael can’t do. His demons, the Fregoli, surround him. They defeat him.
What’s interesting is that Anomalisa‘s other important characters also express defeat.
First, it’s Bella. She’s been broken by Michael and the disappointment he caused her. She’s longed for closure for almost a decade.
Then we have Lisa’s friend Emily. Emily’s the one trying to hit on Michael, but he politely turns her down, then kind of awkwardly asks, in front of Emily, Lisa to come with him. Emily’s clearly disappointed but is a good friend about it.
Then even Lisa is disappointed when Michael starts acting weird at breakfast.
When Michael comes home, his son is disappointed with the gift.
And Michael’s wife is at a loss about what to do with Michael.
When you think about them, most of the minor characters end up defeated and disappointed as well.
The one anomaly?
The film ends with Lisa in the car with Emily, writing the letter to Michael. In the letter, Lisa says she understands what Michael did and why. She holds no anger. She accepts what happened. And this is strange because Lisa had been, when we first met her, such a shy and scared person. In the hotel room, alone with Michael, Lisa kept calling herself ugly. She kept doubting why Michael would want to spend time with her. She felt embarrassed. Ashamed of her body. Her scar. She kept saying the men always preferred Emily. So when Michael ends up betraying her, you’d maybe expect for her to sink deeper down into sadness. To feel that all of her fears about herself were justified.
But that’s not how she feels at all. If anything, she seems more confident. She seems inspired, even. The sun’s shining on her. Which is kind of a big deal with how much of the movie has taken place dark settings. The storm, the plane, the airport, the cab, the hotel, night on the streets of Cincinnati, the conference room for the talk, then inside Michael’s own home. There’s little sunlight, little outdoors. Everything is contained, bleak, gloomy. There are two exceptions.
First, the breakfast when Michael dehumanizes Lisa when she’s finally feeling confident. In that scene, the sun has risen over Lisa’s shoulder and it interferes with Michael’s sight (which might be symbolic).
The second is this ride in the car, writing the letter. Now that we’ve broken out of Michael’s worldview, the sun comes off as far less intrusive here. Instead, it’s pleasant. The world doesn’t seem so awful.
I imagine this is because Lisa’s worldview has changed from being as fearful as Michael’s to being stronger, refreshed, empowered. She is, by far, the happiest character the film has presented us with. Which, in the world of the film, seriously makes Lisa an anomaly befitting the name “Anomalisa”.
With all this said, my ultimate conclusion is that Anomalisa is a cautionary tale about running from yourself. If you run from yourself, you will run from others. If you run from others, then your relationships will be hollow. If your relationships are hollow, you will feel hollow. If you feel hollow, you don’t like how you feel. If you don’t like how you feel, you seek comfort from others. But when you seek comfort from others, they want something from you. When they want something from you, you worry about what you have to give. When you worry about what you have to give, you have to confront yourself. If you have to confront yourself, you become fearful. When you become fearful, you run away. And the cycle repeats.
If Michael had confronted himself and accepted what he found…then maybe he would have had a better ending. Whereas Michael offered really nothing of himself to Lisa. Instead, he asked her to speak. Asked her to bear her soul to him. She was vulnerable with him. She was truthful with him. She let her guard down. But even though she was speaking to Michael, it was almost like a therapy session. Michael helped Lisa have a confrontation that gave her strength moving forward. She wanted to give that to him. As did Bella. As does his wife. But Michael’s too much of a coward to accept the gift these people have offered him.
What a sad yet beautiful movie.