Tuesday 24 August 2021

The odd couple: "I'm Your Man"

The writer-director Maria Schrader has become quietly prolific in her native Germany, but
I'm Your Man is the first of her films to travel to the UK, a result of what's either heightened backroom commercial savvy or just a choice instance of laser-targeted stunt casting: dishy Downton Dan Stevens as Tom, an apparently perfect boyfriend who also happens to be a carefully programmed, algorithm-calculating robot. Tom's relationship with Alma (Maren Eggert), the unhappy, almost determinedly single curator with whom he's paired as part of a corporate test run, forms the basis of a film that almost entirely turns its back on SF tropes and instead positions itself, not unintriguingly, in the grey zone that separates romantic comedy from romantic drama. In adapting a short story by Emma Braslavsky, Schrader has made two bold choices. Firstly, she pairs up her prospective lovers in the first scene; thereafter, she keeps the focus unusually narrow, largely excluding any real sense of other relationships involving robot partners, or indeed how the wider world has been changed by this radical technological shift. (The assumption appears to be that humanity has evolved to the point where ambulant, fully articulate sex toys - a Rabbit with blue eyes who'll give you a cuddle after getting you off - have become a logical next step.) For much of the film, Schrader seems to be running her own research-and-development program with hyperselective parameters, puzzling over a handful of issues that may well be faced by women on today's dating scene. Would there in fact be downsides to encountering the perfect man? Is perfection in a partner the goal, or a chimera? And - this perhaps most of all - what good is perfection if you feel unworthy of it?

The basic set-up isn't entirely original. We're watching a markedly less horny Weird Science, or a subtitled redo of 1987's Making Mr. Right, the gender-swapped Weird Science that featured John Malkovich in the Stevens role. It's also slightly hampered by the fact that, for much of the duration, Eggert and Stevens have to display a reluctant, baffled chemistry: that of someone who doesn't cook and a top-of-the-range eggwhisk. (I think Schrader has to pair them up as quickly as she does to stop us asking how everybody got here.) If Stevens, speaking aptly flawless German, is here to get bums on seats, the downcast Eggert, who never seems too far away from tears, proves more emblematic of the overall picture. This is a curious film, in both senses of the word. Schrader sets out to interrogate her central relationship - where the robot works for her heroine, and where he/it doesn't - but she strikes an oddly muted tone in so doing: my fear is that people are going to show up for a laugh-a-minute robo romcom, and find themselves confronted by something in a far lower key, melancholy when it's not being outright philosophical. Granted, some comic elements are visible: a raucous homecoming, an impish Sandra Hüller as a CEO spouting couples-therapy truisms like code. Yet Schrader keeps backing away from these, and her interest drifts away into strange little sidebars and tangents: Stevens communing with nature and touring abandoned churches at twilight, a late-breaking crisis involving Alma's infirm father (surely a ragged remnant of the source material), which comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. If this is meant as romantic fantasy - and the ending suggests it finally might be - then it's the fantasy of a particularly morose kind of soul, exactly the type who might turn her nose up at the very idea of the Stevens Perfecticon 3000. "What does it feel like to have an orgasm?," our dashing android asks late on. Alma's response seems gloomily telling: "It feels like dissolving." Schrader's film remains striking and atmospheric, but it's held back by a refusal to have all that much fun with the opportunities put in front of it, and a marked tendency to overanalyse everything. Are there more women like this out there than we/I think?

I'm Your Man is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via the Curzon Home Cinema.  


  1. I think the crucial thing here is that the lead character is a scientist, and quickly realises the Danbot is working to set off triggers in her brain because she is as much a pre-programmed robot as he is, only she's flesh and blood and operating through nature's construction.

    There's a scene late on where one of her fellow scientists who has also taken part in the trial tells her this is the best thing that's ever happened to him, as at last he has a partner, and you don't know whether to be happy for him or disturbed he was so easily exploited. It's a fascinating film.

    1. This is a far smarter reading of it than I arrived at (and yes, that scene with the colleague late on is interesting, as it's one of the few times the film acknowledges there might be *other* experiments going on, featuring other subjects). I thank you for addending it here!