Romance

I’m Your Man (2021): Becoming A Person Who Wants Things

This is not a spoiler-free essay. There is a lot of discussion of plot elements. If you like to go into a film blind, you will want to wait to read this piece.

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These are the stories of the robots: They resent us for creating them. They resent us for how we treat them. They surpass us and destroy us. They live with us and do jobs we don’t want. They live with us and we treat them sometimes like pets, sometimes like objects, sometimes like people. We fear and misunderstand them. We ignore and oppress them. They are metaphors for people who have been dehumanized and histories that are painful. They will free humanity for what we were always meant to be. They will make us soft and weak. They are plotting against us. They want only what’s best for us. They are hurt and dejected when we reject our creations. They are tragically innocent and destroyed by humanity’s thoughtlessness and fear. Human emotion is beyond them. Human emotion is too much for them. We project our feelings all over them. Sometimes they are depressed, paranoid or facetious and fly the space ship or are the space ship. (It’s complicated). They find us illogical and unnecessary. They find us wondrous and want to be us. They want to be themselves and find their place in the world with us. And sometimes they love excessively ballroom rhumba and romantic bubble baths.

There are movies about people falling in love with androids, robots and AI, but many are about the risks and even dangers of men falling in love with them. In Ex Machina (2014), Her (2013), and Godzilla vs Monster Zero (1965 / 1970), for example, men have learned what it is to feel a love beyond computation. In The Companion (1993), a woman falls in love and experiences the perils of a smitten Bruce Greenwood mandroid set to full autonomy. Unlike Her, Ex Machina, The Companion and Godzilla vs Monster Zero, I’m Your Man / Ich bin dein Mensch(2021) is mostly a romantic comedy. It just has some additional existential drama and so I call it an existential science fiction romantic comedy. Directed by Maria Schrader, who you might remember as Jaguar in Aimee & Jaguar (1999) and Leonora Rauch from the Berlin 83 series, I’m Your Man is based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky.* (The Gutter’s own alex MacFadyen writes eloquently on I’m Your Man and androids becoming imperfect here).

Dr. Alma Felser (Maren Eggert) is working on breakthrough research on previously undiscovered poetry in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform tablets at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. Her dean, Roger (Falilou Seck), is on an ethics committee evaluating a line of newly created robot romantic partners. And because she is the only single person in their department, Roger asked Alma to participate in a test of a robot—with the offer of additional funding for Alma and her team of grad students to fly to Chicago for research. Of course, this funding is an appreciation and not a bribe. Alma is to spend three weeks with Tom (Dan Stevens), a robot created as her ideal life partner, and then write an evaluation that will be used to determine whether robots can be partners to human beings and what rights robots might have.

Stevens’ reactions, his romantic poses, his delivery and his too much intense eye contact and initial overuse of Alma’s name were all on point. Eggert’s portrayal of Alma’s bewilderment, her incredulity and exasperation at times, her silent refusal to be taken in by an illusion, her curiosity and delight, and her line delivery was similarly excellent. And I enjoyed how Tom and Alma would watch each other in different ways. The film has a lovely and quiet use of the gaze.

Tom has been created using data from Alma’s brain scans, her answers on multiple choice questionnaires and data from 17 million other people. We are introduced to him at a nightclub where holograms fill out the tables and the dance floor as Alma and other testers meet their ideal partners to the tune of “Putting on the Ritz” and “I Like It Like That.” Tom dances an extremely ballroom rhumba among other extremely ballroom dancers. He makes intense eye contact and uses Alma’s name a lot. He compliments her, saying, “Your eyes are like beautiful mountain lakes I want to fall into.” But Alma seems more interested in him as a robot than a potential romantic partner. She does, however, take Tom home and set him up with his own room in what appears to be her laundry room with her (other?) appliances. And so the experiment begins. After his first night, Tom tidies her apartment—a rooky mistake in a scholar’s home—and makes breakfast wearing a beautiful robe carefully arranged to reveal his pecs and abs. He draws Alma a bubble bath complete with champagne, strawberries, candles and rose petals telling her that she should not work so hard. This is, objectively, what 93% of German women want. But Alma is among the other 7%. She doesn’t even want intense eye contact.

It might seem obvious at this point where the film is heading, but I’m Your Man doesn’t quite go to a surrender to love and the recognition of the rights of artificial people. It does thoughtful and existential things on a human level. Early in the film, Alma tells Tom that she is an atheist and that she had promised herself that if she were ever on a plane on fire, she wouldn’t pray because she didn’t believe in God and would not pray only out of fear. Alma asks Tom if he understands, and he does. Alma won’t let her loneliness or sadness lead her into a relationship with a robot because she doesn’t believe Tom is real. But Alma can’t help treating Tom like a person because, well, he looks and acts like a person. She apologizes for leaving him waiting for her in the rain when she goes to work. She criticizes Roger when he becomes too intrusive in examining Tom. She is grateful to him when he explains his presence as a colleague visiting her when her ex, Julian (Hans Löw), drops by to pick up art he had left in her apartmen or when Tom supports her during a meeting with a robot company liaison (Sandra Hüller) who wants to see how the experiment is going.

But Alma also can’t help remembering that she believes a robot is not a person—that as something made as an extension of her desires, Tom is an extension of herself. At first, this tension is easy to resolve as Alma is constantly reminded that Tom is not a human, as he poses carefully while looking at art in her living room or reassures her before going to into a cafe by himself that he can pretend to be “a person who wants things.” But Tom also constantly reminds Alma that he’s not what she wants. He uses corny phrases. He speaks too correctly. And he wants to dance. But as Tom begins to adapt, Alma can’t help treating him more and more like someone she likes and is attracted to.

And when she tries to initiate angry sex with him while drunk, Alma is surprised to discover that Tom can be a person who does not want things. Theoretically, a kiss should be enough. It activates the sensor that controls his erection. And yet, as a drunk Alma insults and tries to provoke him, Tom not only expresses anger, he ultimately declines to have sex with her. Part of this is recognizing what Alma wants—someone who pushes back. And part of this is about consent, not only Alma’s ability to consent when she’s drunk, but Tom’s consent. Tom has to be able to say no to be a partner and he does. She may hate his corny, folksy language and Alma may not want romantic bubble baths and candlelight, but Tom might like and want all those things.

And Tom is changing. He can’t help it. He is supposed to adapt to Alma’s desires. He is supposed to make her happy. But an adaptiveness sophisticated enough for him to become an ideal partner, means that Tom can also become a unique person. Tom is curious about the world and the film shows not only Tom observing Alma as his algorithms take in data, but Alma, observing Tom as he responds to things that are unrelated to her. It starts as he tells Julian that he studies Persian cuneiform. Then Tom tells a story with her about their shared past—how they met at an Anthropology conference and how they might have met as children when Alma was on vacation in Denmark. She notices things that are interesting to Tom on his own—Roman art, a herd of deer in the forest. He expresses a desire to run barefoot in the grass. And it is seeing him curious about things that don’t involve her that leads Alma to kiss him—initiating sex.

In his essay, alex notes that in treating Tom like an object, Alma is more open with him than with anyone else in her life. Eggert is fantastic as Alma moves towards a vulnerability that she does not want to feel and that makes her feel more alone. But Alma’s integrity and her commitment to living as she thinks she should are not compromised in I’m Your Man. Alma stays true to herself, rejecting the temptation to pray when the airplane of her life appears to be crashing. Alma asks Tom to leave for her since she cannot send him away. And in her report, Alma writes that the problem with robot partners is that it’s not good for people to have a partner whose only purpose is to selflessly make them happy. Alma recommends that the committee reject robots as potential life partners for humans.

Tom does leave and at first attempts to recycle himself, then decides on a different solution. In another film, Tom might rampage or we might discover he is more “human” than human. Another film might let Tom be hit by a streetcar for maximum pathos or to resolve the central conflicts it has set up about what it means to be happy and what it means to have a perfectly compatible partner who only wants to make you happy and give you everything you want. In another film, Tom might leave because he has outgrown us. Another film might echo the warnings of earlier science fiction that robots will trick us by being perfect servants and then take over and make us into batteries. I’m Your Man does not, but it does provide the possibility of Alma navigating her principles while also, perhaps, allowing herself to love and be loved.

Tom goes to Denmark and Alma finds him there. And I think Tom’s ability to choose has become crucial to her. Alma understood Tom as a thing designed to respond to needs, not to have needs of his own—beyond, perhaps, a need to fulfill his role. But over the course of the film, Tom appears to have become a person who does want things. Or matches closely enough to the mystery of being a person that it doesn’t matter. Alma needs to know that Tom exists, that he is real. And she asks him for proof as she lies back and waits for him to initiate a kiss, to see if he has become a person who wants her.

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Carol Borden is a Friendly Robot.

Parts of this essay first appeared as a review of I’m Your Man / Ich bin dein Mensch (2021) in Soldier of Cinema‘s coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021. You can see it here.

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