A Different Kind of Love: Her (2013)
Spike Jonze’s tale of romance and heartbreak opens on a tight shot of our main character – Theodore Twombly’s (Joaquin Phoenix) – face. Everything around him is cloaked in a haze. It’s an aesthetic that repeats itself shot after shot, scene after scene, beat after beat. This is a character who – not unlike the robotic passersbys, plugged into all their various devices – is often unable to connect with the world around him.
Simultaneously, Her is a film bathed in the color red. It saturates the sets and costuming. Theodore is almost perpetually wearing some shade of it. And through this color, Jonze communicates Theodore’s remarkable ability to see people deeply and intimately. His entire job revolves around understanding relationships and implanting himself into them; writing his letters with a profound sense of empathy.
Theodore occupies both spaces, as contradictory as it may seem, simultaneously. But, this paradox is at the brilliant, red heart of Jonze’s modern romance in a future world. It’s what makes these characters so beautifully realized. They don’t always act rationally. They repeat old mistakes despite precisely knowing and even recognizing what those mistakes are. They fall in love despite knowing the heartbreak yet to come. They can do things or not do things just because it feels right in the moment, even if they know it doesn’t make sense in the long term.
At one point in the film, Samantha, Theodore’s operating system (voice of Scarlett Johansson) and partner asks him why he has yet to sign his divorce papers to his ex Catherine (Rooney Mara). He says, “I guess I’m just not ready to be divorced yet.” To which she replies, “Yeah, but you haven’t really been married in over a year.” Samantha’s right, it doesn’t make sense. But, Theodore’s desire to hold on to the intimacy of marriage, even if only nominally, overrides the reasonable path of divorce.
Her is also a film that is as much about the audio as it is about the visual. Samantha, effectively untethered to a body, is the acousmetre that manifests herself around Theodore without ever actually being physically around him. At one point, while they are walking together, Samantha reveals that she had begun to feel sensory responses: the weight of her body, Theodore’s presence next to her, and even an itch on the back of her neck. Theodore remarks to his friend Amy (Amy Adams), “I feel like she’s really with me.” But, what I think is so beautiful about this clash between the physical and the metaphysical is that it lets Jonze communicate the contradiction of love both visually and aurally. It’s something that you can feel so viscerally in every bone of your being, while simultaneously being something that completely transcends physical sensation. It’s something that feels like an infinite ocean: the more love you feel, the more you give. Or, as Samantha puts it in one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.”
And, finally, Her also explores our society’s dogged focus on only one kind of love: romantic love. By the end of the film, Theodore, heartbroken yet again, finds solace and growth in his friendships. He composes a message to his ex-wife telling her how much it means to him that she sculpted him into the person he is at the conclusion of the film. He doesn’t hide from the past he had with his ex-wife or wallow in it. He accepts it.
Similarly, he finds comfort in Amy, also heartbroken. And, I think Jonze’s exploration of their friendship is key to the film as a whole. For all the intimate feelings he shared with Samantha and for all the history he has with Catherine, it is Amy who he continually confides in. More than any other character in the film, Amy truly knows Theodore. And, in a film all about the connections and fractures in modern relationships, all of the passions and pains of intimacy and growth, all of the contradictions and absurdities of falling madly in love, perhaps that is the most special bond of all.