A fine film, I have always believed, is the one that privileges its form and frames its story such. Spike Jonze (director) understands this…he is in love with his craft and accords it the respect it deserves.
Strip the mis-en-scen of Her from its sound and dialogues and the visual imagery on screen will stand on firm, independent feet to tell a narrative. Hoyte van Hotema (director of photography) captures the contemporary urbanized landscape and yet superimposes a silence alien to this city experience. The lit, city silhouette shot by the glass window of an apartment or by the terrace, in a silent moment of quietude creates a contradiction between the aural and visual. This foregrounds the contemporary irony of the felt alienation of the city dweller in the midst of millions.
Conventionally, city narratives allow the cityscape to overwhelm and dominate the reel life just as it does the characters in real life. But Hotema’s camera closes in on the protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix) time and again. The close, claustrophobic shots aim at alienating, almost minimizing the presence of the steel structures of the city. The audience is lured into the emotional and psychological reality of the protagonist who is looking for intimacy, solace, love, warmth and acceptance. Even when the bright panel of warm, saturated colours fill the interior setting of the office space, it is accompanied by stretched silence that makes the chaotic work space more surreal than real. Once again, it is not about the external space of the environment as much as about the inner space of the minds of the characters.
The pivotal cornerstone on which the plot of Her stands is the age-old tete-a-tete between modern artificiality and natural Romanticism. Juxtaposed against the contemporary, minimalist modern interior space is the rare outdoor space of Nature but the latter is not seen as a liberation or escape from the former. In fact, Nature and Modernity converge in images like that of the elevator where black silhouettes of leaves and branches exist as a grotesque reminder of the artificial world the characters find themselves inadvertently trapped in. The conflict of the plot is laid bare thus: the confrontation of inherent, human emotions with the technologically mutated, inhuman superstructures that the 21st century has presented the developed and developing worlds with.
To define, decode and deconstruct this unusual love story between the protagonist and the voice of an operating system is the most engaging and exhausting mental process and emotional journey for the viewer. For, like he layers his craft, Jonez also multi-facets his perspective on modern love stories and human relationships. Once again, juxtaposition becomes his favoured narrative choice. Theodore’s (Phoenix) growing intimacy with Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson) is juxtaposed with the disintegrated marriage and divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and these two are further juxtaposed with the incompatible marriage between Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher) and the inter-cultural romance between Paul (Chris Patt) and Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen). The intention however after placing these parallels, is to leave the audience with questions, both complicated and comprehensive, accessible and evasive:
- Theodore’s first marriage was lived through all its physical reality of togetherness yet fails to withstand a long-standing emotional accommodation. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha constantly allows this space for emotional dialogue and openness. In the eventuality that both these relationships come to an end, can we pin longevity as a parameter for the test of a romantic relationship?
- Amy’s marriage with Paul is destined to fall apart due to the gendered domination of one over the other and the obligation of the written contract. Theodore, on the other hand, has all the freedom to change or shut down the OS and Samantha demands respect for her unique identity from minute one. Is marriage an evolution of romance or the reversal of space and respect? Also, what is the definition of a true marriage? Of the minds or of the bodies? Are the two mutually exclusive? Can the two ever co-exist?
- Paul and Tatiana envision a life full of love and happiness. Samantha claims that Shakespearean eternity for her digitally formless self, which is ironically juxtaposed against the mortality of the flesh-and-bone humans. The spiritual questioning that the narrative erupts to the surface is this: do we love with our minds? Do we feel through our bodies? Do we physically compromise or emotionally overreach?
Answers may galore. For, the narrative is built in pure cinematic glory. Her is a story that prods, a song that haunts and a serenade that compels. The slow pace of editing and the smooth cuts are more exciting than exacerbating since each moment on reel seeks a reflection from and on the real.