Maria Schrader masters the art of showing, not telling in I’m Your Man, a smart meditation on life and relationships with great performances from Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens.
What would you do if you were given the chance to get your very own “perfect life partner” — a machine with human appearance and capabilities that was tailor made for you, and whose only purpose was to make you happy and cater to your every need? Would you jump at the possibility of putting an end to painful breakups and familiar loneliness, safe in the knowledge that your new partner would never leave, and never disappoint you? Or would you keep them at a distance, unable to get over the fact that, no matter how well they can mimic human behaviour, they are, and will always remain, artificially intelligent creatures? That is the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Maria Schrader‘s (Aimee & Jaguar) I’m Your Man (Ich Bin Den Mensch), an accomplished researcher who agrees to participate in a new study in order to obtain funds for the research she’s conducting at the Pargamon Museum in Berlin, where she leads a team of scholars studying ancient cuneiform writing. But Alma (Maren Eggert, of Tatort) isn’t required to live with her perfect partner forever: her participation in the study only lasts three weeks, at the end of which she’ll have to evaluate her experience with her temporary life partner. Which makes living with Tom (Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) even more trying, as her “relationship” with the humanoid robot — a relationship that she didn’t even want in the first place — is destined to come to an end.
Judging by the synopsis alone, one would expect I’m Your Man to be reminiscent of works such as Spike Jonze’s Her, telling the story of a man who falls in love with an Operating System, or Black Mirror‘s “Be Right Back”, revolving around a woman who replaces her recently deceased boyfriend with a machine that looks and sounds just like him. Just like these works, I’m Your Man uses artificial intelligence to explore what makes us human, offering insight on some of life’s most difficult moments and ultimately focusing on the nature of relationships. But if Her, “Be Right Back” and countless other works developed around this subject spend a lot of time examining the darkest, most self-destructive aspects that define us, Maria Schrader decides to concentrate on the good, telling us a story that is first and foremost about a complex protagonist with her own struggles and desires. We come to know Alma gradually, by means of revelatory facial expressions and casual exchanges with old acquaintances that let us know that much is hidden behind her restrained composure. And it’s by focusing on her that Schrader and co-writer Jan Schomberg (Above Us Only Sky) manage to tell an incredibly authentic, intimate story that defies our expectations, and that uses its sci-fi central premise to explore, first and foremost, the meaning of relationships, and the complex dynamics at play when two strangers form a connection, and everything changes.
There’s much humanity to be found in Schrader’s relationship drama, and it’s paradoxically the humanoid machine at its centre that facilitates the film’s exploration of what we look for in relationships. Masterfully played by Dan Stevens, who is clearly having a blast imbuying his larger than life character with charming confidence and hilarious strangeness, Tom is clearly not human, and yet he also manages to be endearing, disarming, captivating, clever and profound, making us wonder, along with the film’s protagonist, about whether or not he can feel, and whether or not he deserves to be treated as a human being. But the issue at the film’s core has more to do with the very idea of finding a “perfect partner” with whom to share our lives — a concept that has been drilled into our brains ever since we were children, but that might not ultimately be the answer to our unhappiness. After all, do we really want a partner who is wired to change their behaviour according to our reactions to them, and who never engages in arguments and fights? Or do we secretly strive for conflict in our relationships, and rely on it to bring out our most hidden longings and desires? I’m Your Man successfully explores these issues an more, all while giving us a mesmerising portrait of two central characters who never fail to feel authentic, brilliantly brought to life by Stevens and Eggert.
In fact, Maren Eggert is part of the reason why the film works, as it’s her portrayal of Alma that keeps our eyes glued to the screen for the entire duration of the film. Aided by a clever screenplay that only hints at her character’s past but leaves it up to us to fill in the gaps, hence making the story even more relatable, Eggert shows us a character who lives by a very strict set of rules — a wall that isolates her from the rest of her world on an emotional level, making her feel in control but also preventing her from really experiencing anything. It’s when Tom enters her life that Alma’s carefully constructed routine is turned upside down, and Eggert excels at making the wall crumble one brick at a time, as her character learns to coexist with someone else and be vulnerable, and begins to appreciate the uncertainty of existence. But Alma’s newfound, though always controlled, carefreeness is destined to come to an end, as her time with Tom is limited, and our protagonist will soon have to choose between having three weeks of happiness with a partner who’s soon going to cease to exist and will therefore leave her, or keeping him at a distance to avoid getting hurt in the future.
I’m Your Man only begins to tackle some of the darker, more controversial themes that are usually approached with this kind of material, such as the ethical issues we face when it comes to our behaviour towards artificial intelligence, and how moral it is to create AI with the sole purpose of making us happier, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maria Schrader’s film is a character-centric kind of drama, and it is by focusing first and foremost on the topic of relationships that the director brings to life a much more intimate, immersive story that can be both endearing and thought-provoking, and that smartly draws you into its world with irresitible humour and heart. I’m Your Man is one of the most original films you’ll see this year, and a haunting meditation on humanity, life, and the nature of relationships.
I’m Your Man premiered at TIFF on September 14, 2021. The film will be released in US theaters on September 24.
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