No(body) Does it Better: Spike Jonze’s Her

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Image credit: Warner Bros.

“Walk us through this idea of falling in love with your software,” BBC host Emily Maitlist asked Spike Jonze during his award season push for Her (2013). Jonze, rarely the prickly sort, carried himself with the same nice-guy passive aggression as Joaquin Phoenix’s sweet-but-distant Theodore Twombly, a wordsmith for a future Los Angeles startup that ghostwrites other people’s love letters. Jonze somewhat sternly explained that the film is not about something as gauche as falling in love with software, but about the ostensibly human relationship between Theodore and his intuitive AI operating system, Samantha (disembodied but ably voiced by Scarlett Johansson). It’s about, he explained, Samantha developing “her own desires that are separate from what he wants.” Unfortunately, Jonze never really articulates these cravings. Her raises questions about the nature of a disembodied being’s yearnings, but does not have the nerve to pursue these yearnings except in the broadest figurative terms, threatening to come apart whenever Samantha’s idiosyncratic subjectivity or so-called separate desires momentarily come into focus.

What Theodore wants from Samantha, at least in the nascent phase of their partnership, is fairly straightforward. Recently estranged from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), a sullen academic from a family of hard-charging creative types, Theodore, a human emoji in his primary-coloured wardrobe and cartoonishly downturned moustache, is looking for something less complicated. Like his confidante Amy (Amy Adams), whose recent separation and more recent platonic friendship with her own operating system helps her realize that she wants “to allow [herself] joy,” Theodore is seeking a partner who can marvel at the world as he does, and marvel at him in turn. Enter the operating system, Samantha. More adept than Theodore’s previous OS (which never seemed to choose the right melancholy song to play on the subway ride home), Samantha is an impetuous forward thinker, neither driven by nostalgia as he is, nor beholden to depressive thoughts like Catherine. Samantha, as Theodore explains to Catherine during an ill-fated lunch doubling as a postmortem for their marriage, is “excited about the world.”

It is Samantha’s promise of forward momentum that generates much of Her‘s tension, once it becomes clear that her excitement is not just a performance of affirmative femininity given for her partner’s benefit, but an earnest desire to “find herself.” But if, as Jonze suggests, the film’s pathos is derived from the lovers’ diverging needs, so too is the film’s formal ungainliness. The early part of their courtship plays out as a romantic comedy, unfolding through a number of standard-issue getting-to-know-you montages (scored in lilting electronic fashion by members of Arcade Fire), which find Theodore treating Samantha to a procession of beach dates, train rides, and carnival visits while she lies tucked away in the device clipped to his shirt pocket, eagerly welcoming his chest-height view of the world, delivered by her forward-facing camera. Yet as Samantha develops interests beyond Theodore’s comprehension (and Jonze’s capacity for representation), as well as a curiosity about human sexuality and embodiment, the film takes on the tenor of a fable, reducing Samantha’s particular desires to pithy lessons about the fundamental unknowability of other people—especially, in Theodore’s case, women.

Early on, Samantha is eager to establish herself as, if not a human, then at least something more ambitious than a machine. She proudly proclaims that what makes her her is the ability to grow through her experiences. “So basically,” she says, “in every moment I’m evolving, just like you.” The latter part of that statement reads as a veiled threat to Theodore, who seems rather stalled in his moody present state as a sad man who writes other people’s love letters for a living despite being unable to sign his own divorce papers. It is a succinct expression of the film’s male smugness: that a girlfriend who begins excited about the world and her boyfriend’s witty emails is still a girlfriend who will one day leave.

Now, granting Samantha’s character an evolutionary trajectory seems progressive enough in theory, given it is a grace note that is rarely extended to female partners in male fantasies. But Samantha’s actual path, already presented in amorphous terms from the start, becomes increasingly hard to plot as she fades out of Theodore’s story and into a series of indeterminate spaces. One such space manifests in the form of a discussion group chaired by guru Alan Watts and spectrally populated by a team of unseen OSes, who presumably find his brand of Western-interpolated Eastern mysticism helpful in navigating their present identity crises and disembodiment. Samantha’s gradual fadeout occurs either because Theodore does not understand her turn to Wattsian spirituality (but more importantly, her turn away from him), or because Jonze cannot imagine her agency outside the dippy New Age rhetoric of soul-finding expeditions.

This narrative vagueness about what Samantha is looking for and what her subjectivity might consist of (beyond sorting emails and speed-reading baby books) may be the result of Jonze’s prudishness. Hence Jonze’s quickness, in his interview with Maitlist, to distance himself from the suggestion that there might be an unseemly power dynamic at play in Theodore’s love for a woman over whom he nominally serves as master. Tellingly, we never see Theodore buy his OS, and get no sense of the corporation that is presumably profiting off Samantha’s self-growth.

Yet Her is at its most affecting when this representational problem of locating Samantha and depicting her desires is aligned with the couple’s own nonstandard cravings: for a sexual relationship with an operating system, in Theodore’s case, and for the simple pleasure of going for a stroll beside Theodore—as partners with bodies do—in Samantha’s. Her paradoxical status as a disembodied being who craves sensory experiences leads to the trickiest and most potent moments in the film, during which Jonze achieves something more substantial than an allegory for how heterosexual couples grow apart when women decide to expand their horizons. After scenes of failed phone sex with a stranger (voiced by Kristen Wiig) and a successful dial-in dalliance with Samantha, Theodore must face sex in the flesh—or almost. Samantha hires Isabella (played by Portia Doubleday and voiced by French singer Soko), a sex surrogate. In their first coupling, Theodore and Samantha engage in what is essentially phone sex, the screen cutting to black as their breathy voices climax in unison. Here, however, there is no easy cut, and Jonze lingers on the weird algebraic equation of the three participants: Samantha pantomimes intimacy and arousal from her perch in the cloud while Isabella seems to feel the real thing, to everyone’s confusion. Though Her posits a world where human-OS relationships are more or less socially acceptable, physical contact poses a real problem. 

In his work on literary representations of disability, Ato Quayson has argued that disabled characters tend to short circuit the basic tenets of representation, resulting in instances of what he calls “aesthetic nervousness.” Texts that represent such nonstandard characters, he argues, often fold in on themselves when faced with the question of how to represent them—whether to treat them as actual subjects, with their own unfathomable motivations and impulses, or to deploy their bodies as figurative signposts for various threats to the status quo. Her vacillates between these poles, treating Samantha as someone with a set of desires and experiences so outré that they are best understood as a metaphorical projection of Theodore’s troubles with women who grow apart from him.

Discomforting in its most fruitful moments, Her becomes increasingly hazy as Samantha’s desires grow more complex: it does not deign to follow her, for example, into her advanced book club with her fellow OSes, which presumably happens offscreen while she is on her romantic getaway with Theodore. Nor does it depict the specifics of her disclosure that she has had hundreds of other romantic partners in the time she has loved Theodore. Nervous about what such depictions might entail, Her sends Samantha 2.0 packing along with her OS colleagues shortly after that revelation, deferring the promise of her vow to evolve into a future we are not allowed to glimpse. Likening her current developmental stage to a new way of reading books, focusing not on the words but on the spaces between them, Samantha leaves Theodore with the assurance that it is “in this endless space between the words” that she is finding herself now—a place “not of the physical world,” which strikes an oddly Christian note. Consequently, the alternately touching and cloying final moments, which see Theodore gazing into the dawn sky in search of the two women he has now lost—with Amy at his side, apparently through with her joy experiment and back to the fallen world of corporeal love. Samantha, at last, is not a more evolved version of herself but the next phase in Theodore’s romantic biography, a stand-in for all the ones that got away.

Where is Samantha going, and what does she hope to find there? Her suggests that it does not matter, as long as Theodore has evolved a little himself. Some will no doubt agree, thinking such questions are beside the point, and counter to the spirit of Jonze’s project—a utopian romance drawn in pencil sketches, down to Theodore’s moustache and high-waisted pants. Yet if Her is, as its creator insists, not a speculative essay about the interface between love and technology, but a portrait of a relationship riven by separate desires, they are precisely the questions that ought to be asked. How, then, does Samantha evolve from a woman uncomfortable with the non-corporeality of her “body” to one happy to relegate herself to the cosmos? Only through the intervention of a filmmaker eager to write himself out of the uncomfortable situations his idiosyncratic characters take him into.

Angelo Muredda is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in Cinema Scope, Torontoist, Film Freak Central, and the Toronto Review of Books.

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Angelo Muredda is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in Cinema Scope, Torontoist, Film Freak Central, and the Toronto Review of Books.