Scene Sound Off: Anomalisa

Anomalisa is a story that cinema has seen time and time again: a self-centered middle-aged man finds himself disillusioned with his existence and seeks salvation through a woman. But Charlie Kaufman’s uniquely uses stop-motion puppets and two metaphorical devices: a single voice actor voices every other character who all share the same face. Michael, a self-help expert who fosters productivity in businesses worldwide but not for himself, can find no joy or connection with anyone he meets, they are all the same to him and he is presumably doomed to live a loveless and lonely existence. Until he meets Lisa- the one character who has a different face and voice.

This subjective viewpoint of Michael’s world aligns the viewer with his discontent, and we are likewise relieved when Lisa finally enters the story, her soothing voice like music to our ears. Michael is smitten with Lisa, who soon becomes the object of his salvation.   There is one scene, however, that complicates Anamolisa’s subjective visions. Michael asks Lisa to come to his hotel room and after sharing drinks he asks her to sing. Lisa chooses Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It is important to consider the implications in Kaufman’s choice of this song- what it means for the film as a whole and particularly for Lisa’s character to choose what was described as a “strong feminist statement” and an “anthem of female solidarity.”


After Michael’s request, Lisa says that she will sing “just a little,” but she is so overcome by her connection to the song that she sings over half of it. Her rendition is slow and quiet, turning effervescent pop into a mournful dirge for the marginalized woman. This approach highlights the song’s subtext, its protestations against the dominant society that continually silences and oppresses women to remain in their “rightful” roles. The song’s narrator takes control of her own life by going out at night, as she reminds her mother that girls are “not the fortunate ones.” What begins as a close up of Lisa then pans out to include Michael’s shoulder as he watches her- signaling his interruption and the film’s continual focus on his experience. The reverse shot pictures Michael taking this all in.


In the verse “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/Oh girls, they want to have fun” Lauper critiques the dominant ideologies of male saviors, the ideology that Michael adheres to. To Michael, Lisa is the ultimate victim and damsel in distress waiting to be rescued and be kept all to himself. This is exacerbated by Kaufman’s characterization of Lisa. She is an extremely shy and self-loathing woman. She has a scar on the side of her face, which she continually hides by downcasting her hair. Lisa has only had one previous romantic relationship, has not had sex in eight years, constantly talks down about her appearance and manner of speech.

Lisa confesses that she most identifies with the line,  “I want be the one to walk in the sun.” Michael believes that he is the one to give her sexual and personal self-confidence, to achieve that feeling. This line also foreshadows the final shot of Lisa- the sun shines on her face riding back home in a convertible, the wind blowing her hair to reveal her scar. In the car, she writes Michael a letter thanking him for the wonderful time- even though he leaves her quite coldly. While this sequence is seemingly out of Michael’s subjectivity, it could be read from his imagination. He imagines that he helped her achieve fulfillment and find her place in the sun.


As Lisa finishes the first verse, Michael interrupts and says “That’s beautiful,” but she continues to sing. The female character in this film is fighting for her voice even though the male lead wants to situate himself back as the focus. When she finishes, Michael once again expresses how beautiful it was and begins crying. “It’s your voice, Lisa,” Michael reiterates. Lisa is extraordinary in Michael’s eyes only because she so harshly juxtaposes his dull, repetitive world, as exemplified by the film’s metaphorical visual and auditory devices. He is swept away with the beauty of her voice but not necessarily the power of her words themselves. Michael does not register the message or meaning Lauper’s song has for Lisa, but only how it works for him. Michael perpetuates everything the song is against- eliminating the female perspective and sublimating her as an object for his own self-actualization with little consideration into her personhood.

As Lisa’s mournfully repeats the lines, “That’s all they really want, some fun,” she is subtextually begging Michael to truly consider what she goes through. In this scene, the film almost side-steps into a rich perspective of Lisa’s female experiences. This is her one moment of truth, as she fights for proper representation. But Michael’s subjectivity ultimately interrupts and positions Lisa as his fulfillment object. This is further reiterated by the film’s parallel to the Japanese sex toy doll that Michael purchases for his son. The doll has a scar in the same place as Lisa’s. When Michael’s wife points out that the doll has semen on it, we can read Lisa as just another doll receptacle for Michael’s sexual frustrations- he slept with her and promptly tosses her when she no longer serves a self-fulfilment function. Anomalisa depicts her voice slowly being drowned by the singular voice that Michael hears from everyone else, as if she is a mechanical robot that has begun to break down.


For Lauper, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” wanted to express that “girls want to have the same damn experience that any man could have,” or the same equality and recognition that men have in society. The character of Lisa mournfully expresses this in her slow rendition of the song. Within this scene, we have a female character trying to burst out of the male-centric narrative. While Anamolisa is intriguing and well-done, one wishes that the disillusioned middle-aged male  and woman as his savior narrative could take a rest. The compelling underwritten female characters, like Lisa, deserve to have their moment in the sun. Girls just want to have fun, but Anamolisa proves there is no room for them.


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