The Pygmalion myth gets a gender flip in I’m Your Man, the Berlin Film Festival competition entry from Germany’s Maria Schrader. Maren Eggert stars as Alma, a single anthropologist who agrees to live with a humanoid robot for three weeks as part of a trial testing period. Thomas (Dan Stevens) has been designed as Alma’s ideal partner, using algorithms based on her brain scans, her responses and research involving 17 million people.
Deadline Polite, charming and well dressed, Thomas appears human, save for the occasional cock-headed mechanical smile. Then there’s also his habit of spouting detailed statistics, something he learns to curb as Alma crossly puts him straight about her real preferences — or at least, what she thinks they are. “Maybe they know you better than yourself,” chuckles Alma’s colleague, as she complains about Tom’s chat-up lines. When the odd couple begins to cohabit, the robot is a catalyst for self-reflection and self-doubt in this comedy-drama that’s as thought-provoking as it is funny.
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Inspired by a short story by Emma Braslavsky, the screenplay — written by Schrader and Jan Schomburg — explores themes including identity, humanity, fantasy, self-love and happiness. If happiness is achieved, does it matter if the source is artificial? That’s the key question. In contemporary Berlin, human men aren’t a great option for Alma: her ex has moved onto a younger model and everyone else is paired up. When Alma wants Thomas to act more like a human, she asks him to be angry and unpredictable. Later, a brief, telling scene shows two men in a road rage argument. Is that really a better alternative? Meanwhile, Alma’s senile father is equally erratic. Perhaps a charming robot who can meet all her needs is just the tonic — heck, he even cleans the windows.
Schrader draws sharp character comedy out of the premise, aided by terrific performances. British actor Dan Stevens — speaking fluent German with an English accent — is a consistently amusing physical performer, while Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller puts in an enjoyable turn as his handler. But Eggert is the star of this show. She communicates Alma’s exasperation, frustration and soul-searching in a way that delicately balances comedy and drama.
Interestingly, one of the most serious scenes is a sex scene. In sci-fi comedies, the female orgasm is usually either absent or played for laughs. Here, it’s one of the most revealing moments in the narrative, as a series of emotions flicker across Alma’s face. Guilt, pleasure, surprise, confusion, revelation, doubt — it’s all in here for a few crucial seconds. Weird Science this is not.
Of course, many other films have played with the idea of an AI or magical lovebot: this invites comparisons to everything from Blade Runner to Her. But the female lead gives the story more than just a fresh spin. It’s a chance to ponder on the psychology of attraction from the perspective of a professional woman with a complex interior life, free from the testosterone that drives many examples in the genre. And in an age of isolation, social media and online dating, I’m Your Man seems startlingly relevant. It may have been written before the pandemic, but I’m Your Man was filmed during it: an entertaining conversation-starter for the current age.