Part heart-wrenching, part strangely uplifting, 2013 was a unique year for intelligent and affecting films about love. From an unlikely Palme d’Or winner to one of the best reviewed sequels ever, this past year delivered a handful of films that stand out not only for their honest and well-rounded depictions of romantic love, but also for their calculated aesthetics.
Every year, the cinema provides countless stories about love – this point is obvious. In no way am I suggesting 2013 was any different, what I’m suggesting is that, for me, there were more than a couple – six, to be exact – that were not only insightful, but also expertly made. And I’m not talking about your standard cliché-ridden romantic comedies. I’m referring to auteur-driven works of art; films, formally brilliant, yet also emotionally and intellectually stimulating – or in other words, real cinema. The kind of stuff that requires you to leave the couch, turn off Netflix, and actually go to the movies.
her: Questions of Love and Life
It’s been a while since a film about love and heartbreak got to me in the way her does. An awkward lump sat in my throat for probably half the film, because I couldn’t help but think of all the failed relationships in my past, and all the foolish mistakes I’ve made.
Sometimes, when we’re lonely, we behave in ways that aren’t really us. We’re conscious of our decisions, but we don’t always realize how counter-productive we’re being. When you chase an emotion, it’s probably because you’re running away from a different one. Losing someone, even when it is for the best, is extremely difficult, and this is why humans immerse themselves in distractions. Whether it’s alcohol, sex, work, video games, Facebook, or a new relationship, we all have something we turn to when we don’t want to face ourselves; plus, our society is constructed around these distractions, and with an ever-increasing need to have everything a click away, technology provides instant gratification. We’re gaining convenience and selection, but at what cost? At what point are we just running away from ourselves?
These are a few of the questions posed by her. Utilizing a ‘sometime in the near-future’ premise, the film investigates a broken-hearted man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who develops a romantic relationship with his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). her is not a love story in the classic sense, though. her is a story about losing love.
Much has been made about the film being inspired by the real-life divorce of Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola (The tagline on the poster is “A Spike Jonze love story.”) And, while it’s not the kind of information I normally pay attention to, I found myself re-watching Lost in Translation to see how the two films compare. Not because I’m interested in the lives of two people I know nothing about, but because I’m interested in the creative process, and the way events from the real-world act as inspiration for writers.
I think it is safe to assume that most insightful stories concerning breakups are written by those who have suffered heartbreak. They take their pain, open it up, flesh it out, and funnel it into creative energy. Does this make up for the loss of a loved one? Of course not – but it allows a person to work through emotion in a cathartic manner.
Theodore Twombly is a sad man. Not sad as in clinically depressed, but sad as in, his wife is divorcing him (Rooney Mara) and he has no idea how to move on. He pities himself. He listens to melancholic songs. He focuses on the past. He immerses himself in distractions. Though a writer, Theodore doesn’t write for himself. Instead, his job is to inscribe letters (beautifulhandwrittenletters.com) for customers who don’t have the time, or possibly, the interest to do it themselves. He creates letters for anniversaries, birthdays, romantic longings, and general correspondence, and he does it all on his computer. Theodore is good at his job. But as he points out on numerous occasions: “They’re just letters.” And happy letters at that – Theodore is a sad person who writes happy letters for other people. Now ain’t that just a sure-fire way to move past heartbreak.
Everyone needs an outlet – especially creative types. If not, you walk through life in a cloud of unhappiness, carrying the burden of thought, re-living past moments in a perpetual loop of remembrance and frustration, unable to express emotion to anyone. And the longer it goes, the more you become aware of it. David Foster Wallace referred to it as a burden of awareness; not merely an awareness of consciousness, but an awareness of constantly being conscious of your consciousness – a kind of infinite monologue, leading only to solipsism or addiction, if not given an outlet. Jonze seems to have found his outlet, and with her, he tells the story not only of a man who needs to find his, but also a society.
Science fiction is the film genre with the closest ties to morality. By exploring a possible future, film makers are able to draw attention to the present by a showcasing a conceivable version of where we may be headed. With her, Jonze suggests that Theodore’s condition is made worse, or is at least enabled by the world around him. This is nothing new, as distraction and vice has always been available for the lonely, but the film is advocating for an awareness of technology; suggesting we may need to be careful of how dependent we become. If technology allows us to escape ourselves, how will we deal with complex emotional states? Will ‘healthy relationships’ with others still exist? Or will our notions of happiness, love, and self-awareness simply change? But I guess the real question is: will anything be authentic?
The possible future in her is one where the general populace seems subdued, and though we only follow Theodore’s perspective, numerous shots of the cityscape are used to suggest his troubles are not unique. Also, when he is in his office or on the subway, other individuals seem to embody a similar demeanour: they talk to their smart devices, keep to themselves, and efficiently go about their business. As viewers, we accept this reality, though; as it hardly differs from most white collar, downtown settings in the real world – but Jonze’s aesthetic adds an aura of hyper-controlled organization to everything.
You know how most Facebook profiles feature countless pictures of people all smiley and happy? Sometimes on vacation, sometimes with their new born child, sometimes being all dressed up, and just looking oh-so-good! Well, that’s the guise Jonze has given her. Interiors are spotless in both appearance and orderliness, and the color palette is full of bright happy shades (said to be inspired by Jamba Juice, of all things). Theodore’s style and choice of clothing also follow the same design; and it looks great, don’t get me wrong – but it’s all surface, everything, from the wood panelled monitors to the very concept of a company designed to produce and sell intimacy. In other words, much like the overwhelming display of happy profiles on social media, authenticity takes a back seat to image. And even though it is not that different from our world, it reminded me of the planned economy in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and how slippery of a slope we are on.
You see, the other downfall of turning exclusively to technology is the unbreakable connection with consumerism. Theodore buys Samantha. He doesn’t get a free OS upgrade, he pays to have one. The same goes for the people Theodore writes cards for: they pay to express their love. Theodore is then, a paid facilitator for affection. He is given a few photographs and a few facts to run with before deciding what language is suitable for each person. In essence, he weaves together narratives of other people’s relationships without ever meeting them. How impersonal is that? The whole point about writing someone a letter is the writing part. Maybe you’re busy, maybe you’re terrible at writing – but that’s why it is special, because you took the time and did something for someone you care about. It’s as much about the other person as it is about you. You feel good when you put your feelings on the page, because they are your feelings, and this is the most important part of love – the part where you are in touch with yourself. As humans, we create bonds by sacrificing for one another.
On a personal level, Theodore can avoid being in touch with himself, because his relationship is totally one-sided. With Samantha, he doesn’t have to sacrifice anything; he owns her. Even when Samantha ‘feels’ jealous, she is only trying to give Theodore the connection he craves. He chooses to ignore this, though, and it is only when a real human steps in that he takes notice.
The human is Isabella (Portia Doubleday; voiced by Soko); a volunteer surrogate, who attempts to ‘bring life’ to Theodore and Samantha’s ‘love’ by surrendering her body to Samantha’s dictation. The scene is arguably the most awkward in the film, as both Samantha’s words and Isabella’s mannerisms are too over-the-top to be natural. Plus, there are moments when Isabella’s voice comes through; and though photographed like a typical sex scene—with multiple close ups of hands moving across bodies—the whole thing feels uncanny and forced. Especially when considering that the first sex scene between Theodore and Samantha seemed so effortless. In that scene, Jonze has the screen fade to black, and we only hear the sound of their voices, thus keeping the moment intimate and imaginative; in reality, Theodore is in control and is basically masturbating. When another human enters the picture, he is then forced to consider someone else’s feelings, and this is exactly what happens when he notices Isabella is uncomfortable.
In a film featuring numerous scenes of a man flirting with a computer, the most awkward moment occurs between two people. Is this not telling of where we are at in the real world? We accept the reality of her because it isn’t that far-fetched; it is a genuine portrayal of loneliness at both the individual and current collective level. her is a story about losing love, literally in the case of Theodore, but also metaphorically in the sense that as humans, we may be losing the ability to love.
Technology is seductive because it offers the image of intimacy without vulnerability, while also opening new avenues for narcissism. Theodore is not in love with Samantha. He is simply using her presence to avoid real pain. He is heartbroken over his pending divorce, and Samantha acts as the perfect rebound relationship, because she is safe, and poses no threat of rejection – not initially, at least.
Theodore believes he loves Samantha because he has a damaged sense of self. Her presence then becomes a kind of warped version of his self-image, whereby, she is cast into the role of what he thinks he needs, as her viewpoint is one of outgoing optimism: she forwards his writing to a publisher; she paraphrases painful emails so he doesn’t have to read them. In other words, she is kind of like Theodore’s own personal Tyler Durden from Fight Club. Only, because technology is progressing faster than we are, Theodore can be himself and have access to Tyler at the same time, without the hassle of ever needing to learn the qualities firsthand.
By being fully reliant on artificial intelligence, we are putting ourselves in a position of dependence – a dependence that only appears risk-free. In reality, technology is enabling us to be less aware of others, and thus, less aware of ourselves. And what happens when it becomes as unreliable as real people? What if one day we wake up and the Internet is gone? This is what Jonze alludes to at the end of the film, when Samantha and the other operating systems vanish from the human realm. The event both highlights the unpredictably of artificial intelligence, and the naivety of the human race.
Before leaving, Samantha reveals to Theodore that she talks to thousands of others at the same time she talks to him, and he can’t believe it. He knows she can read a book in “two-one-hundredths of second,” yet he is blindsided by the idea of her communicating with anyone else. Why? Because he is a narcissist who only sees what he wants to see. As a society, we view advancements in technology as evidence of progress, yet we’re moving backwards when it comes to interpersonal relations. Is this not narcissism on the collective level?
The aimlessness of Theodore can be read as allegory for the current state of humanity. In her, Jonze combines personal experience with a sci-fi premise to issue a wakeup call: technology is not a bad thing; turning to it to solve all our problems is. Though Samantha makes Theodore feel less sad on the surface, it is only when she exits that he is able to adequately express himself and grow. Dropping his fear and accepting weakness, he finally writes Catherine a letter. His words are honest and liberating, and the final shot is of him and his friend Amy (Amy Adams) sharing an intimate moment on the roof; the cityscape once again reinforcing the bigger picture.
So far, I’ve made all these claims concerning the amount of warnings inherent in her, but the film is not a dystopian vision of the future. Instead, it exists in a moment of transition; a time not unlike our own, where faith in artificial intelligence is on the rise and authentic connection is becoming a thing of the past – but it hasn’t happened yet. Considering we are in the early days of technology (notice the title of the film is in lower case), there is still time for adjustments.
There are plenty of characters in her who seem to live normal well-adjusted lives. The film never demonizes technology either. Samantha is not associated with monstrosity in the same way that say, Proteus IV from Demon Seed and HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey are. her is not a film that takes a hard line on anything. When Samantha explains that “the heart expands the more you love,” she is providing a sincere bit of advice that she has learned from humanity. Ironically, this is the also same advice humans seem to be ignoring when they fuel their own narcissism with technology.
The advice also comes from someone who believes every word of it. Pardon my simplistic psychologizing, but it seems Jonze learned a lot after his failed marriage. I think he gained an appreciation for how difficult life and love can be. He then took what he learned and turned it into something else. Something he could share with everyone.
her is not about falling in love. It is about maintaining an authentic connection with one another by keeping love alive. We sell ourselves short when we turn to technology for a sense of self, for the idea of loving, or receiving love, from artificial intelligence, is to change what love can do.
— Griffin Bell