The limits of Lisa in Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Anomalisa’

Anomalisa centers on a morose middle-aged narcissist named Michael who seeks salvation from his cyclic mundanity through a female figure. Director Charlie Kaufman employs the subversive technique of stop-motion puppetry to signify Michael’s lack of control; the traveling self-help guru can help everyone but himself. Kaufman envisages Michael’s existentialist nightmare through the visual and sonic device of supporting characters that share the same face and voice, trapping Michael in a prosaic purgatory that submerges him further into the recesses of his despair. Rising out of this sea of ciphers is the anomalous Lisa, whom he nicknames Anamolisa— the sole character who has a different face and voice.

Like Michael, we are relieved when Lisa appears; her halcyon and buttery tone sweetens our senses. Because she is different from everyone around him, Michael is immediately smitten and appoints her as the object of his spiritual redemption. He asks Lisa to sing for him after inviting her into his hotel room. Hesitant at first, Lisa chooses Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 anthem of female solidarity “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Although Lisa says that she will sing “just a little,” she becomes so affected by her emotional connection to the song that she ends up singing nearly half of it.

Lisa’s languid and pacific rendition transforms the effervescent pop rhapsody into a mournful dirge. A softer approach illuminates the song’s serious message. Lauper reminds us that girls are “not the fortunate ones” because patriarchal society continually silences and oppresses them. Despite getting into arguments with her father and mother, Lauper harnesses her autonomy by spending the night doing as she pleases. In the lines “some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world. I want to be the one to walk in the sun,” Lauper critiques the male hero trope. In the music video, Lauper watches a classic film’s damsel in distress scene. Kaufman constructs Lisa and Michael within that same paradigm. Rescuing the naïve, apologetically insecure, lonely and disfigured Lisa affixes Michael within the role of male hero, reaffirms his manhood, and emboldens his disillusioned spirit.

Lisa confesses that the line “‘I want be the one to walk in the sun’ describes so perfectly who I want to be.” Lisa admires Cyndi Lauper’s audacious and exuberant star image because it juxtaposes her own timidity and self-loathing. Although Michael makes her feel special, she knows that he cannot give her the self-confidence she desires. She longs to practice what Cyndi Lauper preaches—to know her own sense of worth without the help of a man. Lisa’s favorite line also foreshadows the final shot we see of her. She rides back home in a convertible as the sun shines on her face and the wind blows back the hair that she cowered behind to cover her scar.

Lisa finishes the song and through his tears Michael tells her, “It’s your voice, Lisa.” To Michael, Lisa is extraordinary not because of who she is as a person, but merely because she provides relief from the horrors of his lugubrious world. He does comprehend what “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” means to Lisa, only that the beauty of her singing mollifies the enormity of his pain. Kaufman’s leading male figure perpetuates everything that Lauper’s song stands against. Like the Japanese sex doll that he purchases, Michael regards Lisa as nothing but a toy that he can easily toss aside when it no longer serves his desires. She is merely a symbol of escape from the banality of his daily life, and a receptacle for his romantic and sexual frustrations. After they spend the night together—his desire for her satisfied—Lisa’s voice becomes just the same as everyone else, signifying his fleeting and misguided infatuation with her. Lisa sings her song in the hopes of making a genuine connection with Michael, but their relationship ends up fulfilling what Lauper’s feminist anthem rallies against. Through this song, we observe the limits of Kaufman’s female characterization, for as an audience we cannot escape the subjectivity of Michael’s narcissism to see Lisa for who she really is.

by Caroline Madden

Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. She has an infinite and ever-expanding list of favorite films, but her top three will always be Dog Day AfternoonRaging Bull, and The Lord of the Rings. Caroline loves cheesy 1980s teen comedies, Mad Men, young Al Pacino, and films with moving musical sequences. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies and writes for her blog You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins

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