The not-too-distant future depicted in Spike Jonze’s “Her” is, much like the life of his protagonist, a gilded cage. Its world, from the pristine architecture to the pastel-coloured interior design, is as pretty and elegant as a brand-new Ipod; and in spite of the ostensibly warm colours used to film it, just as cold and artificial. There are relatively few exterior scenes, and even fewer wide shots and short focals. The majority of the film’s shots revolve around Joaquin Phoenix’s face or torso. He is Theodore Twombly, a sad and lonely man undergoing a divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). The divorce is made all the more painful by the fact that he clearly still loves her and is struggling to understand how he destroyed such a beautiful and lasting relationship. Emotionally shut off, the only people with whom he communicates regularly are his best friend Amy (Amy Adams, continuing Spike Jonze’s trend of trying to make glamorous women look more “ordinary” by giving them plain hairstyles) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher).
Ironically, in spite of his difficulty to handle relationships of his own, Theodore is very adept at understanding and helping those of other people, as evidenced by his job as a ghost-writer of letters between loved ones. While his prose indicates great sensitivity, the very existence of such a job makes the future depicted in the film even more frightening. It suggests a growing inability among humans to speak from their hearts to those who matter to them, without resorting to help from an unknown third party. It is sad, but also keeping in theme with the film’s theme of depersonalization.
Amy and Charles appear very happily married and eager to help Theodore fill the void in his life. In his own attempt to do so, Theodore purchases a sentient OS system with a female personality (Scarlett Johansson). The first action she takes after her “birth” is to name herself Samantha, for the very human reason that she just liked the sound of it. On the surface, Samantha appears to be a hetero/bisexual male power fantasy: An artificial female computer program with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, designed to meet her male owner’s every needs, working simultaneously as a secretary, confidante and eventually lover. The only thing that’s missing is a body for the male owner to gaze at and touch. And that is one of the keys to both Samantha and Theodore’s relationship and Samantha’s growth as a character.
Because she cannot be seen or touched, Theodore interacts with her in a way that frees him from the awkwardness and challenges that come with interacting with flesh-and-blood beings. No touching, no eye contact, only a voice. She would be a good companion for an autistic person – which, I suppose, Theodore might be. It liberates him and allows him to speak freely with her, in a way he simply does not allow to himself when in presence of fellow human beings. He treats her not as a servant but as a best friend, with dreams and desires of her own.
This is where the brilliance of Scarlett Johansson’s performance needs to be appreciated. Programmed to learn and evolve to better suit her tasks, Samantha has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and discovery, and is capable of storing and handling quasi-limitless amount of data simultaneously in a mere second. Most of what she sees and experiences, she sees and experiences for the very first time. In terms of age, she is an infant yet her processing and analyzing of data, as well as her emotional responses to it, are most definitely adult. She loves Theodore naturally, illogically, but envies his humanity. She has no body, no nerves to be aroused with, yet her arousal when she and Theodore engage in cybersex for the first time is disarmingly sincere. Her immaterial nature allows her to be in multiple places at once and see and know things no single human could feel but she wishes she had a body of her own, so that he could touch her and make her feel the exact physical sensations he feels. The way Scarlett Johansson conveys all these complicated and so-very human feelings as experienced by an artificial non-corporeal entity is not only a testament to the underappreciated art of voice acting, it also suggests an intelligent and perceptive human being.
Though Samantha’s growth as a character constitutes the strongest aspect of Jonze’s screenplay, the film does not always seize full advantage of its potential and can be at times frustrating in its repetition of romantic comedy structures: Happy times musical montages, fractures in the couple based on a third party’s comment, reconciliation with help of a supportive best friend… These resorts to familiarity in what is otherwise a very human film, aside from making the characters' liberation from the genre's codes more difficult, stagnate its exploration of the challenges posed to romantic relationships by technology and its increase of the blurring of the line between artificiality and reality.
The best moments in “Her” are the most uncomfortable ones, in which the constant struggle humans experience in communicating with each other is made all the more obvious in a digital world: Theodore’s lunch with his freshly-divorced wife; his interactions with his coworker Paul (Chris Pratt) who may or may not be hitting on him; his blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde) that starts off very well but ends disastrously when Theodore makes his inability to commit clear… But the best of these is undoubtedly the heartbreaking sequence in which Samantha, sensing Theodore’s doubts about the reality of their relationship, hires a sex surrogate named Isabella (Portia Doubleday, dubbed by French singer Soko) in a wince-inducing attempt at imitating the inimitable chemistry that exists in sexual situations between two people who love each other.
As Theodore Twombly, Joaquin Phoenix continues to demonstrate why he is the best American actor of his generation. With his cumbersome glasses, unbecoming moustache and beltless trousers, Theodore resembles the kind of nerd stereotype that was already dated in the 1990s but Phoenix's mumbles, tired eyes and complete commitment transcend any possible artifices to imbue him with deep, undeniable humanity. There is not a moment where he is not Theodore, not a moment where he makes any conscious attempt to impress the audience. Every gesture, every glance is natural, appropriate considering the entire film questions the reality of feelings, not just in Theodore and Samantha’s relationship but in all relationships. “Her” is a film made by someone who has clearly learned hard lessons in his own past relationships and, like Theodore, has used them to gain a better understanding of himself. I am glad he shared them with us, in the form of an imperfect but valuable and intelligent film.