Life and Life Only

Film review: Her (Director: Spike Jonze)

By Sascha Krieger

A kind, faintly smiling, somewhat dreamy face in close-up tenderly speaking words of love, desire, longing. Thus opens Her, Spike Jonze’s latest film, that won him his first Academy Award, for “Best Original Screenplay”. Theodore Twombly earns his money writing “personal handwritten letters” for others, letters directed at loved ones. They are poetic writings full of warm emotion – and they are fake. For he, freshly separated from his one and only love, has no-one to write them to. Shutting himself off in his stylish but empty apartment he tries out a new personalized computer operating system based on artificial intelligence – and falls in love with “Samantha”. Her follows the budding and developing relationship between the desperate loner and the bodiless voice. As they help each other finding or rediscovering their identities, as they ease each other into understanding and accepting who they are, they build a closeness, an intimacy which might not last but which definitely is as real as it gets.

The most surprising thing about Her is how my traps it avoids that it could easily have fallen into. It could have become a science-fiction film carried away by its exciting premise, a farcical comedy indulging in the ridiculousness of its preposterous plot, a sentimental melodrama about loneliness and the impossibility of love, a theatrical showpiece for the acting skills of Joaquin Phoenix or a biting critique of the loneliness inherent in a world in which everyone is connected and separated alike by modern technology. Her incorporates all these aspects, it comments on the despair of a man who has all the world open to him but cannot become a part of it, it is wonderfully funny and ironical, does not shy away from big emotions and paints a compelling picture of a future that might be just around the corner. But the film is more than that: just like Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera that combines close-ups with a soft, sweeping motion including slow tracking shots and carefully used handheld camerawork, the film remains locked tightly to its protagonist.

Phoenix plays Twombly with delicate understatement, almost bordering on shyness, an insecure, complex-ridden man refusing closeness whose only connection with life are his memories, which Jonze inserts as short and somewhat random series of fragmentary images, and other people’s love stories acted out in the letters he writes. The way he slowly and tenderly starts opening up, as his pale features are beginning to breathe life, is as remarkable as it is entirely natural and unspectacular. Such is the unassuming way Jonze characterizes Samantha: Just like Twombly she finds herself through second-hand emotions, as she goes through emails and websites and images she patches together a personality from what technology provides her with. Finding one’s way through the daily media overkill and forming a sense of self through it is a key element of her and one that Jonze just throws out there without any preaching or teaching tone.

Instead, he allows Her an entirely organic growth, takes his time to tell the story which he lets unfold in a poetic flow of images drenched in pale but subtly warming colors, accentuated by the equally unassuming and highly emotive original score by the outstanding Canadian band Arcade Fire. Her is not a satire, a critical pamphlet, a colorful comedy or a tear-jerking drama but a tender and despite its closeness and intimacy never intrusive portrait of a man seeking himself and the other, a touching meditation about the possibility of love. It poses questions it does not answer, but the chance remains open that answers might be found. Ultimately, the film comes full circle as it echoes and soaks up the poetry encapsuled in its opening letters, freeing it from paper, bringing it to life. In a career already marked by exceptional films (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), Her is Spike Jonze’s most outstanding effort to date.

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