Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 05, 2021 10:55 pm 
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Sci-fi rom-com from Germany with a bittersweet finale

The theme of a robotic lover is an oft-treated one. It's taken a bit more seriously and literally this time, which undermines both the comedy and the science fiction aspects of the film, but if you pay close attention, it may provoke new insights. Ich bin dein Mensch, a German film, was introduced at the Berlinale, appropriately enough (it's also set in Berlin) and did well there. It opened in US theaters last week. The title in English, a reviewer pointed out, echoes a Leonard Cohen song, which he thought a risky place to start. This was lost on me since I'm not good at songs and know little of Leonard Cohen. It seems an even greater loss that I knew nothing of Dan Stevens, who plays the robot, Tom. To have been aware that he is known to everyone as a posh charmer from "Downton Abbey" and as someone versatile in various roles since would have made this new stretch cooler to experience, no doubt. It's fun to see an actor you know and like in a totally new role, and nailing it.

The POV however is not that of the eager-to-please robot but of Alma (Maren Eggert), a beleaguered researcher in Babylonian cuneiform poetry whom Tom is sent to stay with and please. It is to promote her project, which has three or four others working on it, that she has consented to road test for three weeks this new automaton, for which funds will be paid by a corporation to her museum. Perhaps we should not scrutinize these details too closely, but clearly Tom has been programmed to be Alma's ideal mate, everything it's believed she would want in a man and everything most German women want. This includes dancing the rumba in theatrical fashion, when they first meet, thoroughly tidying up her flat, staging a hot bath with candles and rose petals, and other services. Actually Alma doesn't want any of these things. Nor does she desire a mate of any kind at the moment, ideal of otherwise. She'd rather brood over the loss of a previous one, Julian (Hans Löw), who's still around. Sad for Tom, but, as we all know, robots don't cry: their sorrow, as I first, profoundly, learned from Speilberg's A.I., lies too deep for tears.

When Tom, whose brain has extensive internet access, provides Alma with some crucial information about her research project, however, she has to take notice. She is devastated, but that makes her need Tom after all, if only faute de mieux.

An original scene is one in which Tom and Alma are rambling out of doors and a whole little herd of deer comes by while Tom is standing there, immobile. Later he explains that he has no human odor - no pheromones, so the deer don't notice him. But then, of course, he lacks something essential for Alma. He's fully equipped for sex, though; he's just programmed not to get an erection unless he's kissed. The whole idea - but as I said, we should not delve too deeply - seems to be that robotics are very highly developed at this point, but still the creation of a romantic mate is a tough one. Some of the rough spots are indicated in Alma's dealings with the robotics corporation's rep, played by Sandra Hüller of Toni Erdmann. Some viewers have noted how interesting Hüller is and suggested maybe she should have played Alma. Maren Eggert idoesn't come off as a terribly deep actress in this, though she has a matter of fact, irritable quality that seems real enough.

Dan Stevens has an inherent interest: he's an English actor. He speaks very good German, but it's a fine stroke to cast him, besides further satisfying his desire to go another step into territory away from the "Downton Abbey" world he escaped by moving Stateside. The explanation is that Tom was given an English accent to please Alma's desire for a slightly foreign man. But of course the accent also adds a strangeness that can pass for robotic.

As mentioned, the relationship is taken so seriously the intended comedy fizzles, and the sci-fi edge is lost; the screenplay is also clogged with a pointless subplot about an aging father. The default scene in this movie, the only one that matters, is the one in which the robot does everything he is programmed to do to please and make love to Alma and she tells him to get stuffed. You see him starting to learn how to reject her, and thus become more attractive, and more human. But the trouble is that however well he succeeds, however complexly he behaves, he is not human. Alma is not like the homely, fat man she runs into who is delighted with his beautiful blonde A.I. mate. She is too proud. But when they go through some things together, Tom gets under Alma's skin. She cannot live with him, but she cannot live without him. An epilogue-coda deals with this touchingly, if ambiguously. In the world of inter-species romance, nothing can ever be resolved.

I'm Your Man/Ich bin dein Mensch, 105 mins. debuted in Australia, then Berlin June 2021, and opened in US theaters Sept. 24, 2021. Metacritic rating 78%.

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