I’m Your Man

Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert dance

Imagine that, a film called I’m Your Man and no sign of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack. Or Wham! Partly that’s because this is a German film (originally called Ich bin dein Mensch) but mostly it’s because this funny and clever movie wants to do things its own way. How about a romcom plot involving C-3PO, for instance, to put it in elevator-pitch terms.

Of course that’s not who Dan Stevens is playing but there’s more than a hint of the prissy Star Wars robot in Stevens’s portrayal of an AI-juiced man-machine designed expressly to be everything Alma, a university researcher, could want in a partner. As for Alma (Maren Eggert), she’s signed up to an experimental program and is now landed for three weeks with a robot she almost instantly regrets having agreed to road-test.

This being a romcom, the initial hostility is all a plot ruse, and Alma and Tom, as the robot is called, will eventually fall in love, as sure as algorithms is algorithms, though there will be many bugs and much buffering on the way.

It’s all about the journey rather than the destination, as romcoms are. And co-writer/director Maria Schrader makes it a good one, full of observational humour and poignant moments. Schrader you might know from Deutschland 83, 86 and 89, where she played the formidable spy Lenora Rauch (a kind of East German Rosa Klebb), but she also directed Unorthodox, the TV series about an Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her arranged marriage. It was one of Netflix’s major successes of 2020, so Schrader knows how to do it.

Stevens speaks German throughout, the slight English accent explained as all part of Tom’s programmers’ plan. Alma likes her men foreign but not too exotic, he informs her, Tom’s supercilious know-all attitude just one of the many reasons Alma isn’t instantly smitten. Tom is also courteous, tidy, helpful and, behind the smooth facade, formidable at stuff like long division – not exactly the sort of personality that inevitably elicits the “take me, ravish me” response in a woman. Another obstacle to be overcome.

Tom and his handler
Tom arrives with his handler



There’s an examination of the loneliness of the long-distance career woman in I’m Your Man too, and a consideration of the meaning of consciousness. Sort of – at what point does Tom’s faking of human emotion become second nature and so indistinguishable from the real thing? Can his feelings really be hurt?

Robot & Frank also gave a prominent role to a clever machine, and also considered the idea that robots might actually be better than humans in key respects. Here, Tom is a quick learner and, as Alma gradually introduces him to her social circle – including work colleagues and, eventually, her ex, Julian – he passes all the tests; noticeably, it’s Alma who doesn’t.

The tests keep coming and the emotional bombs keep landing. This is a very skilfully written and paced script in the classic Hollywood manner. It’s also an expertly crafted film in all departments, from the just-right acting of Eggert (much human frailty) and Stevens (a shred of warmth in his micro-inflected deadpan) to the soundtrack of Tobias Wagner that catches all the mood changes, from initially whimsical to ultimately wistful.

Supporting roles also do what supporting roles are meant to, in a Hollywood screwball-y kind of way. Sandra Hüller as a wonk from the robot company, Hans Löw as the ex, Julian, a man who might have moved on to the next woman too quickly, are both excellent as fingernail sketch characters who don’t swamp the main event.

Yeh, but do Alma and Tom have sex? Are there port interface issues? You’ll have to watch and see.



I’m Your Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Sibyl

Sibyl in clingy sexy black dress

 

 

Billed as a drama, Sibyl is in fact a tragic comedy, a brilliantly dry and pitiless one Kafkaesque in its analysis of a person in self denial and also Kafkaesque in being almost opaque until that “ah-haa!” moment comes along.

Director and co-writer Justine Triet, a fan of Hitchcock and Polanski, dives right in. Even before the opening credits we’ve met Sibyl, a shrink and former novelist who now wants to get back in the writing game. “Don’t do it,” boiled down, is the advice she gets from an old editor friend. But Sibyl does it anyway.

Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is also a recovering alcoholic who really shouldn’t have another drink, and certainly shouldn’t be fantasising about the great times – and sex – she had when she was a boozer. Sibyl has a husband (Paul Hamy) and kids but it’s the guy from the alcohol years she’s fantasising about, in graphic scenes. And given that he’s played by Niels Schneider, you may well too.

But what really does it for Sibyl is the new patient she takes on even as she’s closing her practice to concentrate on the writing. Margot is an actor (it’s Adèle Exarchopoulos of Blue Is the Warmest Colour fame) and so desperately in need of counselling that Sibyl makes an exception and takes her on – in spite of a “don’t do it” from her husband.

Unbeknown to Margot, Sibyl starts recording the sessions, to use them as content for her new book – “don’t do it,” says an analyst colleague. Since Margot is an actress, and is pregnant by her leading man in her big-break movie, breaking professional ethics is worth it for material this meaty, in Sibyl’s mind at least.

From here the film forks a bit – we get some more details about teary Margot, her hotheaded lover Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) and the driven director (Sandra Hüller) of the movie they’re making. But mostly the focus is on Sibyl, who is trashing one boundary after another – shrink and writer, shrink and client, sister and sister, mother and daughter, friend and colleague, holiday and work and, at one point, acting and reality. I’m deliberately not going any further into the plot because a) the joy of the thing is in the watching of it and b) it would read as a flat series of events rather than the cosmic fuck-up that Triet turns it into.

 

Gaspar Ulliel, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sandra Hüller
Gaspard Ulliel, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sandra Hüller

 

A Sybil in ancient Greece was a prophetess who could foretell the future. In spite of warnings from every quarter, this ironically named Sybil blunders on, geographically winding up on the volcanic island of Stromboli as Margot’s on-set shrink for a climax of brilliant messiness which manages to hook in just about everyone involved in the film within the film.

Efira is one of those beautiful 40-something French women who look good in pretty much everything, and Triet deliberately, almost comically, poses her in a variety of outfits as if to prove it – skinny jeans, sober workwear, party gear, nightwear, hair up, hair down, with spectacles and without, make up on and off, clothed and naked. If nothing else it rings the changes while this maelstrom of self-destruction unwittingly brings the pain. If the “ah-haa” moment never arrives, the visuals are a consolation.

I was also much taken with Exarchopoulos, whose dangerously fragile actor might be modelled on Marilyn Monroe – at one point Margot wears a headscarf that seemed very Marilyn to me – and beneath the tears and suicidal tendencies is actually a tough nut.

You can’t say the same about Sibyl. Beneath the successful exterior, this woman who appears to be calling the shots as she negotiates a complete life change is living in state of blithe self-denial.

But the Furies, the cosmos, the Fates have a way of balancing things out. Sibyl sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind. The cosmic, Kafkaesque joke is on her.

 

Sibyl – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Requiem

Sandra Hüller as Michaela in Requiem

 

 

Since Run Lola Run, the Germans have kept up a respectable hitrate when it comes to films that use elements of the thriller to deliver drive – Head-On, The Edukators, Downfall, Sophie Scholl, The Lives of Others. Requiem continues the trend, the thriller element in this case being the jeopardy of its central character, a young woman we identify with entirely (old Hitchcock trick), a student who is plagued with voices in her head. But instead of getting psychiatric help, she is cast into the hands of a priest convinced she is possessed. Two things immediately make this film stand out from the pack – the performance by the remarkable Sandra Hüller as the poor unfortunate Michaela, and the fact that this story is entirely true. Actually, make that three things. Because director Hans-Christian Schmid really goes the extra kilometre in immersing us in Michaela’s world – we meet her as a nice, ordinary-looking teenager on her way to Tübingen university, with a history of epilepsy and other, undisclosed mental health problems. Her hardbitten god-fearing mother is glass half empty about her prospects out in the wide world, dad is more worldly and glass half full. So off Michaela goes. And she does OK, makes friends, gets a boyfriend even, Schmid taking time to build a plausible, normal world. But then the old psychological problems start to re-assert themselves, and like those films where someone wakes up and it was all a dream, then wakes up again to realise that the waking up was a dream and the nightmare is the reality… suddenly she is plunged back into the uncertainty and frailty that she’d been struggling to escape. At this point Michaela is returned home, to the bosom of the family, and becomes the focus of a battle between the kindly father and a rational older priest on one side, and the fundamentalist mother and a zealous exorcist on the other. Set in 1976, which was a while ago now, but hardly the medieval era, this paints a very dark picture indeed of the secretive world of families, one which the radical psychiatrist RD Laing would doubtless endorse (his credo: mental illness is a sane response to an intolerable situation) and the similarly shadowy world of the Church and its arcane practices. Imagine The Exorcist, but seen entirely from Regan’s point of view. And she’s not possessed. In fact the thing about Requiem is that there is no occult business at all – no manifestations or ectoplasm or table-turning or disembodied voices – but it is a frightening, awful and terrifying film that saves its grimmest reveal for the very end.

 

Requiem – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006