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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Express at Berlinale: Love and companionship in times of social distancing

With I’m Your Man and Language Lessons, the Berlin International Film Festival, which is being held virtually this year, puts the focus on intimate bonds that humans need to survive.

Written by Shubhra Gupta
New Delhi | March 4, 2021 9:33:11 am
I'm Your Man 2021The Berlin International Film Festival screened I’m Your Man and Language Lessons.

Some of the best cinema is created with the single central idea that communication is key to happiness. Maria Schrader’s ‘I’m Your Man’ invites a single, unattached woman to participate in a paid experiment on whether humans and robots can find lasting companionship. The very handsome Tom (Dan Stevens) is a humanoid, and has been created keeping in mind Alma’s (Maren Eggert) preferences for looks and personality. According to those who have created him, there should be no trouble in the two coming together as a unit.

Alma’s scepticism, ingrained in her as a scientist, is at first a deterrent. How on earth can this work? But slowly, and this is the most heartwarming part of the film, we see her being emotionally drawn to Tom. And then, we see her recoil: how can she be boiling a perfect egg for an entity which doesn’t eat? How can she be smoothing the bed covers for someone who doesn’t need sleep? Can (wo)man and machine meld carnally, even if the specific body parts, attached at the right places, work perfectly?

‘To have a future, you need a past’, says the woman who belongs to the company which has created the robot. ‘I suggest you invent a past about when you met’. Tom and Alma come up with pleasing fabrications about their meet-cute, and soon enough they are chatting easily, just as any normal couple would. It’s Alma who keeps pulling up short at the idea of getting so close to an entity which has been assembled in a factory. ‘It’s beyond your algorithmic capacities,’ she snaps at Tom. ‘It’s human.’

And yet, we see that Tom is capable of empathy, much to Alma’s surprise. ‘I’m Your Man’ lets us in on the unexpected feelings that spring up between the two, even when the human is constantly second guessing herself. What does that tell us about humans? That we are messy and fearful, suspicious of anyone who is not ‘dumb or stupid or weird’, as Alma puts it. That we are not built for perfection, and that the constant search for it is what gives us purpose. Despite a few missteps, ‘I’m Your Man’ makes us wonder about the essential things that make us, and keep us, human.

Connection is the glue that keeps us alive. Grief-stricken Californian Adam (Mark Duplass) finds solace in the screen presence of his Spanish teacher Carino (Natalie Morales), who is based in Costa Rica. They are separated by hundreds of miles, and yet the spark they share when they appear on each other’s screens surrounds them with what we all crave: warmth and a kind of mutual nurturance.

‘Language Lessons’ is an extension of the Jay and Mark Duplass Brothers’ brand of independent American cinema, in which stories are told with economy and difference. Here Mark doubles up as producer, and Morales directs the film, which plays out in little boxes on digital devices, allowing Adam and Carino to see a tiny slice of the other’s life.

It’s a very pandemic film in its sparseness. It is essentially a two-hander: the third person in the film only appears briefly, as a flitting shadow, only the voice transmitting clearly. There are two locations. The massive home in Oakland, CA, where Mark lives with his husband in wealthy bliss, passing days dotted with extended periods of cooking lunch and dinner, doing yoga stretches and laps in the heated pool. And the much more modest dwelling of Carino, whose lessons have been bought in advance for two whole years (yes, that’s right) for Mark as a birthday present.

From the second lesson itself, separated from the first by a mere week, it’s evident that everything has changed. Mark has suffered a bereavement, and Carino is the first to know about it: just the sharing of that bludgeoning grief, Mark nearly incoherent and incapacitated, and Carino not quite sure of how much she should be inserting herself into a stranger’s life, instantly creates a very intimate, if very strange bond.

It’s precisely that bond which keeps them reaching out to each other, as they begin healing each other, making space for their vulnerabilities by being able to address them with the kind of frankness that distance brings with it. It’s always so much simpler unburdening your soul in someone who isn’t invested in you. They talk to each other so naturally, these two, with awkward pauses, looking away from each other when it all gets too intense, and then looking back at each other, the dance people do.

Though I knew exactly how it would end (blame it on all those happily-ever-after Bollywood movies), and though there were a few blank spots in between, ‘Language Lessons’ left me feeling the feels. Who doesn’t want warm fuzzies? I do, I do.

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