Stories about artificial intelligence in cinema are often told from a distinctly male point of view. From recent indie hits like Spike Jonze’s Her and Alex Garland’s Ex_Machina, to a history of more fantastical narratives like John Hughes’ Weird Science, films about AI always seem to posit a relationship between user and machine – the machine almost always designed to have female characteristics, to be viewed as a quite literal romantic object. And while this often doesn’t prove as problematic as it sounds, it’s a very irksome habit of male screenwriters to water down more philosophical questions about our growing relationships with technology into very cliched gender dynamics.
This is one of the reasons why I’m Your Man, the latest film from actress-turned-director Maria Schrader, is as intriguing in premise as it is delightfully funny in the way it sends up these narratives. Reversing the conventional gender roles of a quasi-romantic AI drama, her film is an effective commentary on the way the genre tackles these manufactured relationships between man and machine, and the innate hollowness of a romance with anything tailor made to suit an exact specification. In a genre that typically uses a narrative of this kind to ask weightier existential questions, the storytelling simplicity of Schrader’s film initially proves more effective.
Image © Christine Fenzl
We’re first introduced to Alma (Maren Eggert) as she walks into a Berlin bar, meeting Tom (Dan Stevens), her blind date for the evening. The dynamics are off from the start of this meeting, and when showing off his dancing skills, Tom malfunctions, revealing his true artificial self, and we discover that Alma has agreed to participate in a three week trial with an AI designed to her specifications to examine whether romance can naturally blossom. When she returns to date the new and improved Tom model, she seems openly hostile to continuing an artificial three week relationship – even as Tom can’t help but stress the success rate with the program, and how much he’s been designed to suit her every need. He even has an English accent, because she likes foreign accents, but doesn’t like to travel too far from home.
As Alma repeatedly rebuffs his attempts at romance, Tom’s algorithm continues to adapt to suit what it regards as her new romantic preferences. She continues to be left cold by the situation (and by the team at the lab, led by Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Huller), but as the days progress, she starts to have conflicted feelings. Could she be happy with this proposed “partner for life”, or would she be too aware that the companionship is designed specifically to keep her happy?
Image © Christine Fenzl
If there is a flaw to I’m Your Man, it might be that despite the fresh new perspective on a typically male dominated genre, its eventual insights aren’t as revelatory as the films it immediately calls to mind. The rumination on love and loneliness may be told from an original comic perspective, but it arrives at the same inevitable destination as many of the films I’ve referenced in tandem with it above. Of course, the journey is more important than the destination. But as the film increasingly shifts away from its comic exploration of the topic for something more sombre in its third act, it transitions from offering a unique take on an over-saturated theme to merely standing in the shadows of the male-centred stories that have previously examined the relationships between man and machine.
It would be wrong to outrightly say that the film’s third act is a disappointment, but the way it taps into a feeling of melancholy very similar to the final acts of similarly themed films (Spike Jonze’s Her, most notably) does a disservice to the bolder comic originality elsewhere. That is aided in no small part by the duelling central performances by Eggert and Stevens, in his second German language role, but first since skyrocketing to international fame in Downton Abbey. Stevens is a traditionally photogenic actor, yet one whose best performances come from directors attempting to weaponize his good looks. Think back to Adam Wingard’s 2014 thriller The Guest, which cast the actor as a mysterious returned soldier who managed to make a small town fall for him through good looks and an easy charm, all concealing the grave danger he posed to them.
Image © Christine Fenzl
Maria Schrader uses the actor in the same light, to dissect the very idea of a “perfect man” – here, an algorithmically designed machine, who can spew cheesy chat up lines, buy surprise gifts and do house chores at will, all because that’s what statistics have shown German women want. Stevens looks and behaves exactly like an ideal man created by committee despite claims he was built to certain specifications, his often cringe inducing behaviour perfectly complemented by Eggert’s straight man routine. It’s one of his finest performances, gently poking fun at the ideals of a perfect romantic partner often put forward in love stories, that are absolutely ludicrous when placed in real life.
I’m Your Man is much more satisfying as a delicate character comedy, its later interrogations on romance and solitude proving different only in how they’ve been gender swapped from this genre’s norm.
Written by Alistair Ryder
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