For some reason, a small subset of cinephiles feel duty bound to turn against any slightly whimsical foreign language film that becomes a surprise hit in English speaking markets. Financial successes like Amélie (2001) tend to be dismissed as pretentious, twee exercises in emotional manipulation. Their popularity in the United States is seen as a failure, as they are not the sort of challenging, esoteric projects that alienate middlebrow audiences. It is difficult not to suspect that some of this blowback arises out of the average cinephile’s desire to feel superior to the average moviegoer. When ordinary plebs begin raving about the sort of films that are usually consigned to smaller arthouse cinemas, cinephiles feel slightly threatened and retreat back into comfortable territory. While this behaviour is perfectly understandable, it also seems unfair to write off a whole portion of foreign language cinema because it doesn’t deal with overtly serious themes or feature shocking, transgressive content. Deceptively light comedies are capable of tackling weighty themes and, personally, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where every foreign language film was as ‘challenging’ as A Serbian Film (2010). 

Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man (2021) is one of those slightly arty German flicks that would typically struggle to attract a wide audience in Britain. Fortunately, many have managed to look past the one inch barrier and have turned the film into a worldwide box office smash (by COVID-19 standards). Part of this success could be attributed to British movie star Dan Stevens, who stars as a humanoid robot known as Tom. He is programmed to serve as the perfect romantic and sexual partner to Alma (Maren Eggert). She is rather disturbed by the concept of having a robot boyfriend but has agreed to ‘date’ Tom as part of a trial that will determine whether the robots can successfully function as significant others. She is paid for her participation in the trial and hopes to invest the payment into a research project that she is participating in. Tom’s overly pedantic ways begin to irritate her but she knows that she will have to put up with him if they are going to make it through the trial. As time goes by, she begins to get used to his presence and opens herself up to the possibility of incorporating him into her day to day life. Alma struggles to distinguish between fantasy and reality and she gets closer and closer to a machine that is designed to prey on her emotions. 

The screenplay constantly keeps you guessing, as you can’t help but wonder whether you are seeing a disturbing psychological horror film about benevolent robots who are finding a way to quietly take over the world. On the surface, this is a romantic comedy about a woman who isn’t quite content with her love life. The writers clearly had fun playing around with the tropes of the romantic comedy genre and pointing out all of the ways in which people need fantasy to be an element of their love lives. They doggedly refuse to make any definite judgments about whether Alma’s relationship with Tom is unhealthy and never stack the deck in humanity’s favour. Alma is never portrayed as a weak, vulnerable woman who serves as an easy target for a manipulative piece of machinery. She is very devoted to her career but she isn’t presented as a cold, unfeeling shrew who doesn’t know how to have fun. This adds another layer of complexity to her interactions with Tom. She is rarely actively resistant to his attempts to help her and treats him politely. This means that his seduction attempts are far more subtle than they otherwise would have been. There is a believable friction between Alma’s ideals and her desire to retain her composure in Tom’s presence. Her emotional arc is complicated and her problems don’t have any easy answers. In other words, she feels like a real, flesh and blood human being. 

Alma’s relationship with Tom becomes a metaphor for the relationship that most human beings have with social media. We know that Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat are using algorithms to figure out what we want and manipulating us into having certain emotional reactions but we can’t help but treasure the rush of endorphins that comes with having one of our posts liked. Social media exists to make us feel good, whilst also manipulating us into becoming addicted to it. It understands us in a way that other irrational, highly emotional human beings don’t and it gives us a level of fulfilment that a human relationship cannot offer. It finds a way to say something about how our personal lives will always be entangled with the technology that we employ and asks us to do most of the work when it comes to answering the questions that it brings to mind. 

The whole film works off of a very strong foundation, in the form of the script, but it probably wouldn’t have worked without an extraordinary lead performance. Eggert goes above and beyond in her efforts to turn Alma into a three dimensional heroine. She plays her as an emotionally withdrawn individual who is very focused on keeping herself in check and appearing respectable to the outside world. Most of her reactions to Tom’s mistakes seem incredibly subdued, but Eggert amplifies the vivacity that lies beneath Alma’s placid facade. There is a beautiful moment in which she describes her childhood yearning for a Danish friend who never looked her away, and her recollection of this memory is oddly delightful. She becomes a dreamy romantic, drunk on the idea of a love that never was, and, if you’re not careful, she might just reduce you to tears. It’s one of those star turns that reminds you of the importance of movie stars and the inimitable glamour that they brought to the screen. Eggert has the undeniable self possession of Norma Shearer and the hard won optimism of Miriam Hopkins. She gives one of the best performances of the year. 

Rating: ★★★★

I’M YOUR MAN launched on digital platforms on Tuesday, October 12, 2021


 

Watch our interview with Dan Stevens