I’ve been falling behind with my content lately, and for that I apologize. The last several weeks have been hectic, and the desire to sleep has won out over many other priorities, including this blog. Trust me, this is not how I normally operate. I pride myself on being super punctual and try to do as much as possible in advance.
Case in point, it’s late October right now, but I’m already beginning my coverage for next year’s Oscar Blitz! November 1st is the first major deadline for submissions to the Academy, particularly in the specialty categories. As such, 45 countries have already announced their choices to compete for International Feature, and by happy coincidence, today’s review is the first of three in a row for these candidates. It’s never too early to get started!
The opening entry is I’m Your Man, from Germany, which was one of the first countries to make their announcement. Directed by Maria Schrader (Netflix’s Unorthodox), the film stars Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens as the most unconventional couple imaginable – a human woman and a robot man. It’s funny, brilliantly acted, and sneakily affecting in its exploration of romance and interpersonal relations, making it one of the best films of the year.
Eggert plays Alma, an archaeologist who studies cuneiform for a museum in Berlin. In exchange for extra funding for her projects, she agrees to take part in an experiment where she will live for three weeks with a robotic boyfriend named Tom (Stevens), who is programmed to adapt to her personality and her every need, making him the ideal companion. Alma, who is distant and aloof to say the least, is heavily resistant to Tom’s advances and algorithmic adjustments. Meanwhile, Tom is incessant and insistent on his purpose, as his entire existence is to cater to Alma, to fulfill her emotional needs even though he can feel nothing himself.
Watching the film, I was reminded of an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “In Theory.” In that episode, a heretofore unseen (and never seen again) member of the crew has recently broken up with her boyfriend. Seeking someone different from the typical guy she dates, she begins a relationship with the android Data, played by Brent Spiner. Data, having never been in a relationship before and unable to experience emotion, nevertheless tries to anticipate her needs and simulate the actions of a romantic couple from his limited observational understanding. In the end, they split up, with the crewman realizing she left a man who was emotionally distant just to rebound with one who is utterly incapable of feeling for her.
It’s far from the best episode in the show’s run, but it was an intriguing dynamic. It didn’t quite get properly explored, mostly because the focus is almost entirely on Data, as he’s one of the main characters on this show. His erstwhile mate, Jenna (played by Alien Nation‘s Michele Scarabelli) was a one-off guest star. By the very nature of episodic television, this relationship was doomed before it started, and it couldn’t really get to the heart of the matter (pun not intended) because the character work had to be devoted to Data’s continual curiosity about the human condition. So we only got one side of the story in the 45 minutes allotted.
Here, however, both main parties are given full agency. And despite them having diametrically opposed motivations, the two have undeniable chemistry. From the opening scene at a dance club, where Tom recites smarmy poetry and performs an impromptu samba, all while Alma quizzes him on the most idiosyncratic facts and figures as a means of reinforcing his artificiality (a sort of reverse Turing Test, if you will), you know exactly what these two are about, and you’re laughing the whole way at how brilliantly Eggert and Stevens play off one another.
In that respect, the relationship on display here is sort of the inverse of the one from the Star Trek episode. On the show, Data tries his best to approximate what it’s like to be a boyfriend, even though he’s not able to feel genuine emotion. The tragedy is that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot be what Jenna needs. In this film, Alma is adamantly opposed to the whole affair because she doesn’t want to feel and doesn’t want to admit that she has needs for Tom to fulfill. On the show, Data’s artificial intelligence is the obstacle. In the movie, Tom’s AI is Alma’s excuse to become even more detached and treat him like a machine.
And yet, it’s never done in a cruel way. Alma fights against Tom’s presence because he’s not alive in the traditional sense, but she never goes out of her way to hurt him, even though he cannot be offended. When she complains to one of Tom’s designers (Sandra Hüller from Toni Erdmann) and refers to him in mechanical terms, she actually feels guilt for treating him so, like someone regretting a verbal slight or microaggression. While Alma doesn’t feel a synthetic lover is right for her, she does feel herself becoming attracted to him, and sees the joy the replicants bring to others, examining herself and her own methods of interpersonal communications in the process, so that she can still grow as a character. It would have been so easy to leave Alma as a one-note shrew, but Eggert brings a stark, familiar humanity to this absolutely batshit scenario, and elevates the proceedings with each passing scene.
It also helps that Maria Schrader was able to get such a great performance out of Dan Stevens. In nearly every scene, Tom wears this wry smile that always hints at something beneath a façade, and acts with a level of courtesy that’s not unheard of, but is certainly uncommon in most social situations. Further, while Stevens speaks fluent German, all of his dialogue is written and performed in a rigidly technical and formal matter while also maintaining his English accent. In a Q&A session after the screening I saw, he mentioned that this was the crucial bit that got him the part, as there aren’t that many British actors who speak German, but it was essential for the motif Schrader was going for.
The idea is to make Tom the perfect man, but in a way that’s ever so slightly off-putting. He needs to be too good to be true, so expertly programmed as to be just a bit uncomfortable, in order to further fuel Alma’s hesitations about his artificial nature. You want a man to make you breakfast in bed and clean the house? Awesome. Tom will do that while you sleep, which is borderline creepy. And when you get up in the morning, you’ll realize that you actually like a bit of lightly-controlled chaos and messiness with your work papers, so seeing a neatly organized desk area is a completely foreign concept, and something distinctly weird to your personal experience. That’s Alma’s life. No matter what you say you want in a partner, getting it instantly delivered is jarring, and that’s what Stevens brings to Tom. It’s far and away the finest performance of his career so far.
The underlying concept here is nothing new. The idea of robotic romance is as old as science fiction itself, and honestly, if you watch the news, you’ll see a story at least once every other month about how we’re getting closer to fully-functional sex robots. We’ve seen the idea explored in tons of great movies, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina. But more so than any other, I’m Your Man gets right down to the human element at play, and does so in uproariously funny fashion. By giving a woman exactly what she wants in a lover, thereby showing her that it’s what she doesn’t want, Maria Schrader provides a genuinely moving examination of how we convey our needs and desires to others, and how we reconcile our own inherent contradictions. And if you say you were expecting that from a film that presents itself as essentially a robo-rom-com, I’d want to know who programmed you.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you seen any foreign films so far this year? Who’s your ideal mate? Let me know!