Spike Jonze’s Her is as pure an experience as the aroma of tin-metal coffee beans is and instant coffee is not. The film eases into you, and it craves reciprocity. As it happens, you do reciprocate without even realising it. Her is that kind of a film.
It is also much more. It is a reflection of an emotion which all of us have felt — lonely and unloved. The disturbing part is that this loneliness only threatens to get lonelier in the years to come. Set in Los Angeles in the future, Her is a story of Theodore Twombly, who works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters. com, where he writes letters for people who can either not write as well or simply do not have the time. He lives alone in a high-rise apartment and is in the final stages of a divorce with his wife. He is the quintessential lonely urban middle-aged man.
It is partly a desire to fight this loneliness and partly his curiosity that leads him to buy a first-generation artificial intelligence operating system (OS1) that talks in a female voice. As the bond between the OS1 and Twombly deepens, they fall in love with each other, each in a way finding solace: he, in her love, or what he thinks is her love, and her — it’s imperative that the OS1 be called ‘her’ and not an ‘it’ or a ‘she’ — in him, his physical form and ultimately, her feelings.
The plot of the film develops organically every time the feelings develop, evolving into a search for emotions, and the thin blurred lines between man and machine, love and knowledge. With them, the colours evolve too. No other film since the 1989 Paul Greenaway film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover has probably used colour to follow an emotional pattern to such an endearing effect. Twombly’s shirts range from red to scarlet to brick red to mustard yellow to sea green to azure to white, each colour not necessarily an elegiac moment, as it is the director’s vision of this world that his actors inhabit. In themselves, they are mystifying and monosyllabic. In themselves, they are one statement, pretty much like Twombly, who could have been no one else but himself.
It is here that Joaquin Phoenix makes Twombly so believable, so much the man-in-the-mirror. He injects life into the character, with his high-waisted slacks and solid colour shirts and suede half-boots. The her is the voice of Samantha, which belongs to Scarlett Johansson. Her is OS1, but not the only OS1. As Twombly says, and her echoes, “You’re mine, but not only mine.” Though difficult to comprehend, you nod in agreement. For you see Her trying. Despite the sex — and sex is a necessary emotion — that is quadrupled, because it moves from the virtual to the ethereal to the physical. In other words, it degenerates, bringing to the fore the truth that we all know, but wish so hard never to happen. Still, it does.
There is no mush to any of the roles. Not to Phoenix’s, not to Johansson’s, not even to Amy’s, played by Amy Adams. But, there is vulnerability, and plenty of it. Twombly oozes it, as does his estranged wife Catherine. Rooney Mara, who plays the wife, lets her vulnerability translate into exasperation when she finds her soon-to-be-former husband in a relationship with an OS. She does not grudge it so much as she despairs for the vulnerable man it makes him.
There is no hate in the film, only an absence of love. The beauty is, there is no room for anyone in between the two protagonists, even if the twain meet in a virtual world, where time and space fuse into one and acquire one whole new emotion. Jonze’s Her is the epistemological search for that new emotion, and until it acquires a name, we have this gem of a film to try and feel it. And feel it, we must.