A Heart in Winter

illustration by Brianna Ashby The hero of Spike Jonze’s Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), moves in the fugue state of the bereaved. His is a morbid kind of grief: for too long, Theodore has refused to sign papers for his divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), a driven writer whom Theodore complemented rather than completed. He was nurturing; she was ambitious. When Catherine leaves, Theodore can’t move on.

Twombly is a dreamy loner, receptive to ideas that more pragmatic types might scorn. For work, he skims the surface detail of people’s lives in order to give voice to what they’re unable to express. Some days, Theodore says, I’m my favorite writer. His clients and co-workers are moved by Theodore’s emotions, which are ventriloquized in commissioned letters printed to look hand-written.

And here is the subject of the film, in fact of Jonze’s oeuvre – the search for the authentic in a digital world of copies and no originals. Jonze’s feature debut,Being John Malkovich, exposes the diminishing thrills of breaching a portal into a movie star’s privileged body.Adaptation tracks a writer’s battle with his conscience as he attempts to fashion a Hollywood film out of a non-fiction reportage about the hunt for rare orchids. Where The Wild Things Are transposes a beloved picture book into an aching story of a little boy’s estrangement from his divorced family and escape into a fantasy world. The heart of Jonze’s fictions is found in the combination of low fi and sci fi. His aim, like so many of his auteur colleagues (let’s include in this list: Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, among others), is to elegize the singular among the homogenizing tide of the universe.

As a director, Jonze’s approach is anchored in the uncanny use of the mundane. Her’s aesthetic is willfully unshowy: the demeanors are tentative and the costumes buttoned-up and sexless. It’s as if the ease of obtaining nearly anything has made Theodore and his friends anything but powerful: they seem softer, more childlike, and more ingenuous when they relate. A chat room partner may feel bold enough to ask Theodore to talk dirty, but face-to-face intimacies are alarming; first dates are desperate for connection but show no understanding of how to read another person. Theodore’s face—his brushy mustache and sad eyes—suggests the silent pathos of a Charlie Chaplin character, burdened by disconnectedness.

Love offers the hope of a bridge. When Theodore hears about a new development in computer operating systems, he imports his own. He answers a few comically rudimentary questions (what is your relationship like with your mother?), and presto: he is presented with his newly-born digital Girl Friday, the self-named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) who exists only as a throaty murmur in his ear.

So many movies create a female love interest only to further the male hero’s development or assist him in achieving an externalized goal. Lately, films have featured a purely symbolic female character—the blow up doll in Lars and the Real Girl, or the imaginary muse in the Pygmalionesque Ruby Sparks—in which a writer has a relationship with his own literary creation. These love objects offer the troubling suggestion that young men cannot relate to a person with her own demands and needs; or, perhaps those films suggest that a large part of any romance is the struggle to get past the limitations of the self. To Her’s credit, plucky Samantha is a dynamic creature who follows Oscar Wilde’s dictum: The aim of life is self-development, to realize one’s nature completely.

Relationships take shape according to a Jungian kind of science: if there’s any kind of chemistry, both sides are transformed. In this sense, Samantha performs the function of any romantic partner. She acts as Theodore’s cheerleader, his muse, his goad, his electronic Venus. She draws him out about his present condition, his past hurts, his aspirations, amplifies his life. But the film also depicts the coming-of-age of this digital being. Impressed by her intimacy with Theodore, Samantha seeks out other intelligences to augment her experience of the world.

The dialectics of Her follow the limitations and liberties of technology and of humanity. The film exams all the complications of any relationship: how to have a sexual relationship, how to integrate another into your physical and emotional world, how to socialize in a group, how to commit, how to navigate the insecurities that might arise on both sides—in this case, the insecurities of a bodiless lover and a human-brained and emotional one.

Theodore’s idea of love centers on an ideal of fidelity, a chosen limitation that’s a gesture of sufficiency declaring, this Other is enough; I can retreat from the world with this one other being. At times, Jonze employs lenses with such a shallow depth of field that Theodore’s nose is in focus but his eyes are not. It’s as if Jonze says: this is the human perspective – whatever we think we know, we are limited. We are all inching along illuminated by the limitations of our consciousness. Samantha, on the other hand, shows a love that is much more impersonal—it’s romantic love filtered with grace. She loves the essence of Theodore and prizes his unique self, perhaps because of the sea of human and artificial intelligences she encounters. Love can be the most specific and also the most generalized feeling.

The story culminates with the operating system doing what you’d never expect a machine programmed to serve would do – Samantha and the other OSes leave their jobs and human connections for a more fulfilling existence…elsewhere. The abandonment hurts Theodore terribly, but the relationship always occupied a kind of dream state, a virtual space where Theodore could take risks he wasn’t prepared to take in life. The rejection, like Samantha’s affection, is uncritical and impersonal, and perhaps more bearable for it.

The film’s emotional currency favors the lover who prizes the unrealized and the hopeful within a beloved. Though Samantha would seem to have experienced the greater growth, from birth to love to individuation from her human master, it’s Theodore who would be bereft if he weren’t left with Amy Adams’ simpatico soul. Any love object is a Rorschach test—a scrying device about the concerns, values, strengths and weaknesses of the self—a mirror with divine powers. Samantha, on Theodore’s behalf, helps him perform the inventory that the best relationships demand while Amy allows him to find a mature relationship, perhaps platonic, perhaps romantic, with a flesh and blood woman.


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City