by Jordan King
“Are human beings really intended to have all of our needs met at the push of a button?” This is the question academic Alma (Maren Eggert) asks herself towards the climax of Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man, a quirky, philosophic drama/anti-romantic comedy/low-key sci-fi film that foists upon its protagonist algorithmically engineered perfection before proceeding to poke holes in the folly of the idea of perfection existing at all in our world or our lives.
We meet Alma in a swish bar that, judging by its swathes of tables-for-two, is presumably some sort of singles club. With red velvet curtain drapery promising untold magic ahead, Alma finds herself approached by Tom (Dan Stevens). If Tom’s piercing bluer-than-blue eyes don’t suggest something out of the ordinary is afoot, then his tête-à-tête with Alma in which he likens her eyes to “two mountain lakes that I could sink into”, quotes Rilke by line reference, and enthusiastically suggests a Rumba – much to Alma’s disdain – before glitching out for a few moments definitely coaxes the rabbit out of the proverbial hat.
We soon learn that this bar is filled with humanoid robots and holograms, each tailor-made to provide the perfect lover for their lucky recipient. Whilst Alma is less than impressed by her first encounter with the dazzling-by-design Tom, who is brought to life (or lack thereof) by a stupendously brilliant Dan Stevens in a performance that marries Bond-like coolness with Bean-like stupidity, the desire to continue funding her research into ancient texts forces her hand into accepting Tom on a three week trial.
An employee who later doubles as a relationship counsellor (Sandra Hüller – scene-stealer) suggests as Tom and Alma leave together that they may benefit from coming up with a story of how they first met. “Without a past, there can be no future” she philosophically opines. And, in a roundabout way, the rest of the film that follows is as much about Alma and Tom creating a past as it is about them forging a future. When later in the film Alma describes the effect Tom has had on her life in terms of “life without you is now life without you”, Tom – in characteristically observational and emotionally detached fashion – simply says “Isn’t that what you humans call love?” The filling of a lack in one’s life is surely love in its most unromantic but accurate description, and whilst Alma is deadset against humanising her AI partner for much of the film’s duration, lending I’m Your Man it’s comic flourishes as Tom time and again tries and fails to win her over (a scene in which Stevens sits astride a bathtub looking like he’s filming a Galaxy advert is truly LOL-worthy, even moreso when Alma scathingly tells him she’s in the 7% of women whose idea of romance isn’t a rose petal strewn bathtub), she nevertheless cannot help but get used to having Tom around and finding herself falling for his banal brilliance.
Touching on humanity and technology’s seemingly inevitable reaching of a singularity, riffing on Spike Jonze’s Her and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in many ways whilst standing out for its own idiosyncratic approach to the topic, it is fascinating to watch I’m Your Man wrestle with what it is to be human and whether love truly does know no limits. Watching Tom struggle to fathom how a couple can sit enrapt by ‘epic fail’ videos in a cafe for almost an hour and then watching the lady sat beside him try and fail to explain the hilarity we find in others’ misfortune is maybe the closest we get to a concrete thesis on where lines are drawn between artificial intelligence and human stupidity. As a succession of clips of kids getting hit with footballs and old men falling off ladders plays out, I couldn’t help but be reminded that the ability to make mistakes in the pursuit of our goals and to even laugh at them in retrospect is a trait that is uniquely ours. Tom is funny without trying to be because of his ‘otherness’ to the lived human experience, and he is incapable of spontaneity, let alone pratfalling without provocation – when he sets about completing a task, he does so efficiently. For us average joe mere mortals however, we mess up and blow our own minds hundreds of times a day. That we can’t explain the humour we find in failure, and that we can’t prevent ourselves from falling as we climb towards our goals, is about as human as human gets.
And yet, with all of the above having been said, the romance that does form between our two leads has the human distinction of being unlikely, unconventional, and caustic. Although Tom can meet all of Alma’s needs at the push of a button, in his strivance to do so he frustrates and challenges Alma, encouraging her to confront her own insecurities and past traumas as those in love often do. Sure, she’s an academic human and he’s a shit-hot robot with a Wikipedia brain and the emotional depth of a teaspoon, and sure, they fight like cat and annoyingly obedient dog, but as Alma deals with her father’s declining health and her ex’s incumbent child – a joy she herself has cruelly been denied – the algorithm does seem to be working. Alma’s walls come down, Tom listens, and the two connect. Whether that’s ethical, or authentic, they cannot truly say, but it is there, and Schrader asks us to consider if maybe that is simply enough?
Boasting two perfectly complimenting lead performances from Eggert and Stevens, a formal precision that allows genres to merge seamlessly and dissolve into a love story that feels both timely and prescient, and a script that is as sharp as Tom’s precision-engineered jawline, I’m Your Man is a truly delightful film with a hell of a lot to say and a mesmeric way of saying it.
I’m Your Man is playing at Berlinale.
Buy your tickets now!