In the tight and impressive Oscar competition for Best Picture this year, there hides a subtle and off-the-cuff romance film. Director Spike Jonze crafted a romantic film in Her, released in 2013, a film in which light and darkness share the screen for all 126 minutes. But here’s the thing: the movie is original. Jonze has taken us into a time in the unspecified near-future where operating systems are capable of independent thought, and ultimately, love. He shows us a time in which dependence on physical appearance is fading along with face-to-face social interaction. Serious, slow, sexual and beautiful, Her walks us through love in a way we never thought possible.
Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a recently divorced man still haunted by images from his married past. A “personal letter-writer’ – a job in which he writes letters from one loved-one to another – Theodore goes about his life immersed in technology, much like the others we see around him. The irony, and a central point to the movie, is that it is in technology that he finds his true love. After failed attempts at anonymous phone sex and a spectacularly ignominious blind date, Theodore purchases the new OS1, a new operating system capable of its own intellectual and emotional freedom. Although his interactions with her at first seem innocent, they begin to fall in love as he shows her the world through the small camera on his handheld device. Their romance builds over time and fails anticlimactically as love is wont to do.
Scarlet Johansson and Amy Adams highlight the film with incredible performances. Johansson is the voice of the Operating System, who names herself Samantha, and her irresistible voice projects an incredible sensuality and intelligence into what we see as a machine. She even says to Theodore, in their first conversation, “in every moment I’m evolving, just like you.” Her voice brings the system to life and creates a vibrant and emotional half of the couple’s relationship. Adams on the other hand plays a video game designer, Amy, married to a nagging artist. The soft and abrasive manner of her and her husband’s interactions underscores the painful nature of their relationship. This couple’s anguish is manifested, not in the screaming passions of traditional Hollywood couples, but in the real and equally painful passive conflicts that build over time. After Amy and her husband of eight years break up because of an argument about where to put their shoes, she describes love to Theodore as “a form of socially acceptable insanity.” These two leading ladies are powerful and real. They draw Theodore out of the comfortable castle he has built for himself and show him how to love again.
Heartbreaking and beautiful, the power of the film ultimately comes from Joaquin Phoenix’s powerful performance. The nuance of Phoenix’s facial expressiona and tenderness in his voice give ultimate credence to his identity as a reserved and kind man, full of emotion and afraid of confrontation. The love he is capable of when he lets himself go is lasting and haunting. The bright lights and pastels of the movie contrast with the force of the darkness of his despair in the lowest of his lows. Phoenix’s performance is fluid, changing, and shows the definition and character of a man truly in pain and in love, a stark duality that rings extremely true.
Spike Jonze unveils a complicated masterpiece of “unparalleled beauty,” remarks Dan Boyle ’17. His characters come to life as we go deeper and deeper into the quiet and endless depths of love and misery.
As Chris MacDonald ’17 from Bowdoin College puts it, “Her walks you through the complexities of being in a relationship, complexities that were always there and you never noticed.”
That quality of defining creases and highlighting minute details is the power that Spike Jonze brings to the table. And in doing so he reveals truths that are applicable to everyone one of us.