On the surface, this year’s German Oscar entry “I’m Your Man” seems like a familiar indulgence in romantic-comedy tropes – a career-driven woman, still feeling burned by a bad break-up, resists the advances of a handsome guy who wants to sweep her off her feet, even though he won’t be dissuaded from the knowledge that he was made for her.
Except in this case, the guy literally was made for her — Tom (Dan Stevens) is a robot, and everything he says and does is designed to make him the ideal match for Alma (Maren Eggert, “I Was at Home, But…”), an academic whose boss has charged her with the task of spending three weeks with Tom, so that she can write a report about the experience. Alma’s analytical mind enables her to understand everything that’s seemingly ideal about a “perfect” mate while also listing all the reasons why such a relationship would be flawed and even dangerous.
As synthetic-boy-meets-human-girl love story, “I’m Your Man” takes a bleak view of relationships — what we put into them, what we get out of them, and what we want to take for ourselves. But since this is a story about people having their needs met by technology, the film offers a blistering perspective on the relationship that most of us are in with the internet, specifically with social media, and what it’s doing to us.
Love is the last thing on Alma’s mind – as an anthropologist, she’s leading a dedicated and hard-working team of experts analyzing ancient cuneiforms for evidence of early human use of metaphor and poetry. She’s immediately put off by the eager-to-please Tom, rebuffing his overtures of pancake brunches and candle-lit baths. (He strews rose petals around her bathroom because, he notes, that’s the fantasy of 93 percent of German women.) Every time she shuts down one of his advances, Tom gets a momentary far-away look as he calibrates his algorithm to be more of what Alma wants; even Stevens’ British-accented German is explained as an element of Alma’s ideal man, one who’s foreign without being too exotic.
She starts getting used to having him around, and even begins to succumb to his charms. Yet as Alma finds herself falling for Tom, she periodically snaps back into understanding that having an artificial romantic partner who exists only to accommodate the needs of one human being means that the partner is merely an extension of the person and that their conversations are all really monologues. But when Alma decides to send Tom back to the factory, doubt sets in. Can this synthetic relationship be saved?
Director Maria Schrader and her co-writer Jan Schomberg (the two previously collaborated on “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe”) settle into a world that is very much our own; there are none of the flying cars or day-glo pantsuits that so often accompany science-fiction tales about robots who are undetectably human. It’s a choice that gives their premise added resonance because, in so many ways, humanity has already arrived there. People plunge into the feedback loop that Facebook or Twitter provide – the notion of a communal meeting place hides an echo chamber that’s designed to show us and tell us nothing but what we want at all times – and it’s not all that different than believing in the romantic declarations from a machine that’s been programmed to do so.
The rom-com veneer acts as the sugar that lets the film’s more serious medicine go down, and Schrader understands this territory well, from the breezy and occasionally prickly banter between Stevens and Eggert (he’s a perpetual naïf, she’s a hard-bitten cynic) to the cinematography by Benedict Neuenfels, which creates romantic tableaux for the two stars in locations that range from coldly futuristic university buildings to sun-dappled meadows.
“I’m Your Man” warns us of how seductive the prospect of tailor-made lovers could one day be, but in the meantime, it might encourage viewers to get out of their dysfunctional relationship with social media or, at the very least, relegate it to the friend zone.
“I’m Your Man” opens in US theaters September 24.