In Maria Schrader’s Berlinale film I’m Your Man, a cuneiform researcher is torn between her ethics and the appeal of a robot lover who meets all her needs.
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How big is the gulf between what we think we want from romantic relationships and what we actually need or would settle for? Is part of the joy of a relationship the knowledge that you’re needed? Is a flawed partner more attractive because they make you feel less alone for also being flawed? How do we change to suit our partners in a relationship? Wouldn’t it be convenient if you could store your partner in the spare room with the vacuum cleaner and the exercise bike? These are some of the many complex questions at the centre of Maria Schrader’s Berlinale competition film, I’m Your Man. In the film, cuneiform researcher Alma (Maren Eggert) is asked to test out a new AI robot, Tom (Dan Stevens), who has been designed to be her perfect man. For three weeks, he’ll live with her and learn from her, and at the end, she’ll write a report about the experience, evaluating what he’s like as a partner.
When the film opens, Alma arrives at a swanky club with retro decor, a dance floor, and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in the background. Couples are flirting and chatting, either seated at tables or dancing. Guided by an employee of the establishment dressed like an old-timey flight attendant (Sandra Hüller), Alma is introduced to Tom, seated at a table, looking dapper in a well-tailored suit. The conversation is stilted. He makes bizarre comments like, “Your eyes are like mountain lakes I want to sink into,” and punctuates his suggestion that they dance the rumba with a shake of his shoulders. Alma asks him a series of bizarre but super specific questions, from solving a hard arithmetic problem to reciting poetry, which he answers without skipping a beat. Alma shifts between staring blankly at him and looking away in disbelief, disgust, or frustration. When they get on the dance floor, his dancing is so overenthusiastic, each movement exaggerated, that you wonder what planet he dropped in from. That is, until he short circuits, repeating “Ich bin” with a twist of his head, like a broken record. As he’s carried off by a group of handlers dressed like Hüller, we realise Alma’s date is not a human, but a facsimile of one.
Aside from Alma’s repeated comments about Tom being a machine, this opening scene is the only obvious sign that he is one. The world of Berlin looks like 2021. But the mix of old and new architecture — the all-white interior of the AI company, the Pergamom’s modern wing against its original building — much like the design of the club at the beginning, brings a sense of old and new together. The modernist pedestrian bridge outside of the Pergmamom, where a particularly tense scene unfolds, looks like it could be straight out of a science fiction film. The costumes, too, are contemporary but classic, much like the ones in Transit. Tom seems like a human, and this world seems just like ours. But the clash between modernity and antiquity — including the fact that Alma studies the latter — is constantly at the forefront of our minds. It’s as if Schrader is asking, is Tom all that different from the partners we know now?
The artificiality of Tom is particularly obvious in the difference between his physicality and Alma’s. In every situation, Tom moves at the same pace, sits and stands perfectly upright, and tends to move at right angles rather than fluidly; he turns with his whole body rather than turning just at the hips. The one time we see him settle into a couch with his arms spread wide, he does so stiltedly, moving into a seemingly relaxed position without ever releasing the tension in his body: he’s meant to look slouched, but doesn’t actually slump into it. Even Alma looks at this attempt with disdain. In other words, his body isn’t expressive, because he doesn’t feel emotions.
By contrast, Alma’s movements and body position are constantly expressive and constantly shifting. Walking to work, she’s purposeful and quick, upright but not stiff. When she gets bad news she needs to verify, she suddenly rushes through her office to her computer — the camera following fluidly with her — in a panic. Unwinding at a bar, or trying to, she’s completely slouched and languid. When talking playfully with a child, she slows down, and raises the pitch of her voice, making herself friendly. Alma’s changing body language feels so natural that it makes Tom’s unchanging stiltedness stand out. Their costumes also highlight their differences: Alma wears a billowing beige overcoat while Tom’s black coat is highly tailored and hews close to his body. Alma’s curly hair is unpredictable, while Tom’s straight crew cut never has a strand amiss.
In the beginning, Alma is turned off by Tom’s eager-to-please demeanour; his factory settings seem to have programmed him to perform old-fashioned ideas of chivalry where the gesture is grand but empty. On their first morning together, Tom laments she’s leaving without breakfast with a smile on his face and the overly formal, “I was so looking forward to a romantic little brunch. Have a little chat.” Without skipping a beat, Alma disdainfully replies, “I never chat.” Immediately, Tom replies, “That’s why I love you.” She looks at him skeptically, not believing a word he’s saying, and not just because she knows he’s a robot. She decides to lay down the ground rules, explaining she doesn’t want a partner, and he should just leave her alone. Stepping invasively into her personal space, he looks for specifics. “Love doesn’t interest you at all?” “Zero interest.” “And tenderness? Intimate closeness? Intense eye-contact?” “Definitely not.” In one early scene, Alma is on her balcony smoking, and through the window, we see Tom moving about the apartment, in the other half of the frame; Alma has done everything she can to keep them in separate spaces while sharing the space of her apartment.
Tom’s algorithm updates. He may be a blank slate, but he can read Alma, who is constantly expressive with her face, her body, and her voice. He learns from her dry humour, and when they go to a party together, tries a version of it on a friend of hers. He learns that drawing her a bubble bath next to a bed of rose petals — he explains that 93% of German women desire this — is the opposite of what she’s looking for. When she tries to provoke him into having an emotion and doing something unexpected, she suddenly finds him turning her down for sex. As Alma gets used to having Tom constantly by her side — she’s afraid to leave him alone in her apartment lest he try to tidy it up into something unrecognizable, like he did on day one — he adjusts and shifts until he becomes a better partner for her. Before long, he’s persuading her to do things she wants to do but doesn’t know she wants. His physicality, however, doesn’t change.
Just as she’s starting to like Tom, she reminds him, “There’s a gulf between us. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, pretend the illusion is just another form of reality, but certain things highlight just how deep and insurmountable that gulf is.” She’s constantly feeling emotions, and he has none. She has a past and regrets, and he’s eager like a child, even if he’s good at listening to what she says and paraphrasing it. “You won’t allow yourself to become close to a machine out of desperation and longing for human contact,” he says in reply to her story about her childhood that she means as a metaphor. She has sex with him that night anyway.
The trouble is, in so many ways, he’s exactly what she wants from a partner. He’s a success with her friends when they go to a party. Whether they know he’s a robot or not, they scrutinize him like an object while looking at and talking to her. To them, he’s an extension of her. He has no original ideas, but he’s got encyclopedic knowledge and is infinitely fascinated by her ideas. He can get up-to-date on research within minutes and help her find resources she didn’t know she needed. He’s a mirror. As Margaret Atwood wrote in “Tricks with Mirrors”:
Mirrors are the perfect lovers, that's it, carry me up the stairs by the edges, don't drop me, that would be back luck, throw me on the bed reflecting side up, fall into me, it will be your own mouth you hit, firm and glassy, your own eyes you find you are up against closed closed
It’s why Schrader so often shoots Alma through windows and frames, scrutinizing herself in front of a mirror.
Alma is never sure if she likes this mirror, even if it’s flattering. Because the more flattered she becomes, the more she likes him. The more she likes him, she wants to show her care. But what’s the point when Tom needs nothing and can’t experience emotions? “I’m acting in a play. But there’s no audience,” she tells him. “All the seats are empty. I’m not even acting for you. I’m all alone. I’m only acting for myself. Even right now, I’m only talking to myself. It’s not a dialogue.” And yet, pushing him away brings her to tears. Aren’t all relationships a play between two people, where you tell yourself stories about who you are and what you mean to each other? Tom invents a shared history between them: the story of how they met. But he has no pain he can share, and no way to empathize with her, only the appearance of it. Is that enough?
Atwood’s poem is about how men tend to treat women like mirrors: someone without needs and desires who lives to serve as the perfect partner. As a woman, Alma isn’t used to being on the other side of this. She’s surprised when she meets another man her age who is so happy with his robot that he wants to keep her forever. He’s unperturbed by her surface-level engagement because it’s exactly what Atwood suggests men tend to look for — and she looks younger and is hotter than anyone he feels he deserves.
Things are more complicated for Alma. One of the ways we show empathy is through mirroring: repeating back what people say to us in our own words. It’s how we communicate we understand them. Tom can do this better than most people, and he’s never selfish because he’s incapable of being so. But what if your partner’s selfishness is how you know they’re real? Is it possible for Alma to trick herself into really believing Tom can empathize with her and care for her when she knows his words are empty? How willing is she to ignore that she knows this if she can get some comfort from it? Aren’t we constantly ignoring inconvenient bits of reality anyway in the service of happy relationships?
By presenting us with a vivid, complicated, and funny woman, Schrader dares us to ask whether Alma should take Tom or if she deserves more? Is there a man who deserves her, anyway? Her ex-partner, with whom she shares a strong history and rapport, fell quickly into bed and a new life with someone else shortly after they broke up, with seemingly no regrets. Alma hates herself for loving Tom, because it feels like falling for herself. He can’t challenge her as she thinks she wants to be challenged, but Schrader never introduces us to someone who can. And Alma has all but given up. Alma may be using Tom to dialogue with herself, but Schrader asks, how different does this look from most romantic relationships?
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