Coming directly from last year’s multiple award-winning television mini-series Unorthodox, director Maria Schrader has produced a German-language feature film that combines science fiction with romantic comedy and a touch of philosophy, around the theme of artificial intelligence. AI has been portrayed within the movies as anything from hero to villain, slave to weapon, at least as far back as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s sinister HAL – but I’m Your Man is unusual in the genre. Schrader combines humour with subtle reflection to address the question of what it means to be human.
Maren Eggert plays Alma (for which she won the acting award at the Berlin Film Festival), a scientist and head of her company’s ethics department, whose research funding depends on her participating in an experiment. For three weeks, she is to live with an AI prototype, one designed to be her ideal companion. Alma is not only sceptical of the extravagant claims of the AI company but she is also repelled by the idea of employing a non-human as either a friend or a lover. However, under pressure from her workplace, she agrees to participate.
Alma is established to be a rather solitary person, who puts off any efforts by men to chat with her or ask her out, although she watches couples and families on the street rather wistfully, and she remains discouraged over her last, failed relationship. Her main social contact outside work is her weekly visit to her elderly father; he is comically unpleasant and cranky, but she is tolerant and caring toward him. Information like this, it is implied, would have been gathered by the android manufacturer, in order to devise a perfect match for Alma.
Alma’s initial visit to the robot showroom is a clever, entertaining scene, using a little CGI along with live-action to present a selection of various types and levels of robotic figures, as well as perfectly lifelike holograms. The place is rather bizarrely set up in the form of an upscale nightclub, with humanlike robots and holograms talking with humans at tables and on the dance floor. An enthusiastic salesperson presents Alma with her personal android, Tom (Dan Stevens), who deftly converses with Alma, flirts with her, and startles her by leading her across the dance floor in an expert and flamboyant rhumba, before exposing his robotic nature by unexpectedly breaking down. Alma is assured he will be repaired shortly, and she can take Tom home with her for further study. Alma is rattled by the showroom, Tom, and the entire situation, but is resigned to making the best of the three-week probational period.
Most of the film is a virtual two-man show, an ever-changing give-and-take between Alma and her custom-designed robot, Tom. Alma is hesitant, opposed on principle to the idea of treating a synthetic device as a friend, but also curious about Tom and precisely how his programming makes him her ‘perfect match’ and a little fascinated by his reactions to her. She is also lonely, and at some level enjoys even the robotic simulation of human interaction, and finds herself repeatedly drawn into conversation with Tom, before angrily recalling that she is only “talking to herself.” She is startled by the detail that has gone into making Tom her ideal mate: he even speaks German with a British accent because, as he tells her, she was assessed as liking men who were “not exotic but slightly foreign”. Alma maintains control of the situation by refusing to treat Tom as a human, even though he calmly informs her, doing so would make her happier. Challenging him in detail about his construction and programming, questions that Tom answers without hesitation or reserve. When interaction becomes awkward, Tom candidly explains that “failed communication attempts” are all part of recalibrating his response. Soon, he assures Alma, there will be fewer mistakes, and he will be consistently pleasing to her. Alma is clearly uneasy at the possibility.
Maren Eggert’s performance as Alma is subtle and on the mark at all times; but it is Dan Stevens’ portrayal of Tom that is the most eye-catching. Under Schrader’s direction, he carefully walks a fine line between plausibly human and artificial, genuinely likeable and slightly uncanny. His behaviour demonstrates the ways in which he has been made Alma’s ideal companion, providing either soothing or challenging conversation according to her mood, and always dedicated to her well being while never letting the viewer forget that he is only a computer programme. Every scene in which Tom is viewed as believably human is counteracted with a glimpse of Tom as pure machine. Tom’s interactions with Alma, and occasionally with people she knows, are often funny, sometimes for their slight inappropriateness, sometimes for Tom’s unexpected deftness at managing, or even playing with, the fine points of human communication. There is also humour in his initial, misguided efforts to provide a conventionally romantic atmosphere, or to display ‘ideal boyfriend’ behaviour, which fall flat, requiring still more ‘recalibration.’
There is more to the story than the robot’s success or failure, however. Schrader uses Tom, an artificial man, to explore real male-female relations. He is programmed to give Alma exactly what she needs from a partner and however fabricated his behaviour may be, it provides some insight into what she actually does want, what is missing from her life, and why previous relationships may have failed; and allows for speculation about the entire concept of romance. The fact that Tom is a robot, designed to serve and incapable of being offended, permits a more direct and honest approach than would be possible with a real human, and that makes for some interesting revelations. Finally, placing the male partner in a subservient role provides a new angle on relationships.
Schrader admitted in an interview at Berlinale that she found it interesting to have a male character take the part of “an object, there to make you happy,” one she feels is typically a female role. The question of interacting with non-human devices, and how it affects us, is indirectly explored throughout the film. It becomes complicated partly due to the advanced quality of the robots in question, which have gone beyond familiar virtual assistant technology.
Tom is both believably human and programmed to make Alma happy, but he is not a male version of a Stepford Wife, submissive and blandly accommodating; his design allows him to do the unexpected, to question and challenge Alma, even to disagree or refuse requests, when his algorithm indicates it is best for her. The film explores, lightheartedly but genuinely, whether a technological point can be reached at which humans are not only replaceable, but perhaps even improved on. Alma’s discoveries about Tom, and about the company that produced him, adds a further edge. The script makes no suggestion that these robots are a threat, no hint of the sci-fi convention of their turning on their makers or trying to take over the world. Any threat these robots may represent, it is suggested, comes from human imperfections. As Alma continues her three week test period and begins writing her carefully worded review, the film brings home the strange ambivalence of her situation perfectly to the final moment.