The unbearable loneliness of being: what Anomalisa tells me about loneliness (or not)
The second the film ended, with the closing credits still rolling, two men sitting at the back of the theatre just couldn’t wait to share their spectacular views with their fellow audience. I tried hard to focus on the running lists of names, hoping that concentration would somehow turn off my hearing and block the unwanted opinion. Sadly the human brain does not exactly function that way, and their voices were a bit too loud to ignore, and this line slithered into my ears, “the most impressive thing is Kaufman told the story of a midlife crisis through cartoon!”
And I respectfully disagree.
The argument of animation not being exclusively for children aside, I disagree with his description of this plot being one about midlife crisis. Sure the protagonist is a middle-aged guy that is apparently dissatisfied with his family and his mundane life. Yet while the story is spoken through the lens of this middle-aged man, the film is ultimately about loneliness.
And loneliness knows no boundary of age.
However, as I gave more thoughts to it, I began to doubt myself: is there no correlation between loneliness and age, at all? I find myself unable to answer this question definitively.
Reaching the point of the middle of your life (which may not be a very accurate concept as we have no conclusive way to figure out exactly when the midpoint of our life is, until, well, the moment of our death) may, in itself, be frustrating and makes a person more prone to finding his life painfully boring. Life is exciting at the start — we grow up quickly, we go to school, we make friends, we dread going to school, we lose friends — and then we grow up too quickly, we become adults, and we simply keep doing the same things, working the same job, meeting the same people, over the next few decades.
So I understand the idea that when a person reaches his 40s, daily life becomes routine, and life may seem… pointless. But how does that make a 40-year-old unquestionably lonelier than anyone younger than he is?
Assuming time is the only variable, the true cause of the drowning isolation of the middle-aged would then be all the time spent searching for that one person that is meant to be. And reaching your midlife means you would have already spent 20 years on this endless search — I think I am starting to grasp that unique loneliness that youth knows not. Plus, pragmatically speaking, how can you still expect to find that special one in the future where you will only be older and uglier and unhappier, when you have not found the love that you wanted in the past two decades?
Or worse still, what if you thought you have found him/her, then life goes on and time flies and one day you realize that person may not really be that someone whom you have been looking for all along?
Having said all that, I stand my ground that this film, and in turn, the theme of loneliness, is not limited to anybody going through midlife. Lisa doesn’t seem to be at her midlife, but she is as lonely, if not more, as Michael. Depicting the story of a middle-aged helps amplify the bitterness and possibly appeals to a target group of audience. But the isolation and desperation to find the unique person are common to all.
Now that it is established that loneliness is constant in life and increasingly depressing over time, I proceed to explore the idea that finding “true love” is an anomaly.
[Major spoiler ahead]
As suggested by the name of this film — a wordplay indicating that Lisa’s appearance in Michael’s life is an anomaly — finding the special someone is a rare event in life. I admit that while I did realize every other character in the film eerily shares the same face and voice, and I was very aware that Lisa is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, I failed to realize this oddity the moment she speaks. So at first, I didn’t understand why Michael is so excited and is in such a hurry to get dressed and then pounds on every door to look for her. Only in retrospect did I realize it is her voice — the only different voice — that sells her out, that bangs on Michael’s eardrums like the Good News of the Lord.
[Even more major spoiler ahead]
As I watched them fall in love with each other, a warm, tingly feeling rose in my stomach and I just couldn’t help smiling even though I was sitting in the dark, alone, among a theatre of strangers. They’re in love! For god’s sake. I can smell the bliss in the air! There are bubbles everywhere! I may even be hearing wedding bells!
And then it’s gone.
Their anomaly lasts for barely 10 minutes (of the movie), and it’s gone. Just like that, her voice is no longer lovely, her giggles become irritating, and her naivety is now a nuisance. His love vanishes as swiftly as it has come, leaving like bubbles popping in the air.
So, is it Michael’s fickleness or is Lisa simply not the one?
This then brings us to the next question: is there a “true love” or “the one” for any and all of us? Or do we inevitably lose interest over time (although perhaps not as fleeting as in the case of Michael)?
In other words, is “true love” true love or just yet another short-lived passion that is a momentary anomaly in our unbearably insipid life?
For Michael, at one point his love seems so genuine. Lisa’s unique voice, the unprecedented beam on his face, his determination to fight against the world for her… Yet if love is but a dream, Michael’s love sure as hell doesn’t even make it through the dream. So perhaps Michael only thinks he loves her because he is lonely, and bored. Call it whatever you want, looking at this story in its simplest form, it is nothing more than the lust of a middle-aged man, who is quite good-looking for his age and is famous and obviously well-off enough to get whichever woman he wants, except for his (rightfully hysterical, in my opinion) ex-girlfriend.
As for Lisa, she doesn’t even like Michael romantically in the first place. She admires him, granted. She is shy but delighted to be invited for drinks. She is thunderstruck when he makes sexual advance. She feels loved. And she loves the idea of being in love. This becomes even clearer when Lisa tells the story of her once falling for a loser old douchebag that only wants her for her body. Her life has been overwhelmed by loneliness. So how could she not fall head over heels for the sparkly, experienced Michael Stone?
All of these go against the notion of true love. So what, Kaufman, we spent all this time drowning in loneliness, rooting for this once-or twice-in-a-lifetime anomaly and now you’re telling me it’s not it, wait again?
Or what if that is the answer, that true love simply does not exist? That whatever we do, whoever we meet, it all ends up ending? Our “love” either doesn’t work out, or lasts long enough to turn ugly. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain — the love version.
And then what? With this epiphany, do I stop searching? Stop waiting? Stop believing that past relationships were for the sole purpose of preparing myself for the final right person? Stop wishful thinking that I will meet the one person that will give me butterflies in the stomach and make me the happiest person on earth?
Mostly importantly, do I stop feeling lonely once I have accepted that there is no the one?
Or perhaps, loneliness is forever present, and we will never, truly, be not lonely, because regardless of whether we are alone, there is always an emptiness which we cannot look outside to fill. To live is to embrace the loneliness of life. Growing up is learning how to live with your sense of loneliness and be at peace with it, and with yourself.