I’M YOUR MAN (2021) is an insightful meditation on technology and identity.
The film tells the story of Alma Felser (Marlen Eggert), an archeologist at the Pergamon museum in Berlin. Alma’s research is about the origins of language. She finds evidence in Sumerian artefacts that metaphors were already used as early as the Bronze age. A colleague approaches Alma with the proposal that she join a scientific experiment. She will live with a male robot named Tom (Dan Stevens) for three weeks. The purpose of the experiment is to assess whether humans can have intimate relations with robots.
Tom is programmed to fulfill every desire of his owner. Initially, this appears very attractive to Alma. But as the relationship develops, she grows increasingly frustrated with the concept. In her final report of the research, she writes that a robot should not be used as a life partner. If we get addicted to having all of our needs met, we will not be able to make contact with ordinary humans anymore. Relationships require tension, conflict and frustration. The story should end here, but Alma is unable to forget Tom. Their final encounter leads to a surprising conclusion.
Alma’s anxieties are easily recognizable in our encounter with artificial intelligence. The fear is that robots could either dehumanize, or replace us. This is a logical consequence of the famous ‘’Uncanny valley’’. The more a machine looks and acts human, the more it creates a spooky effect. We fear that our identity might be stolen. But there is something missing in this premise. I’M YOUR MAN connects Alma’s robotic romance with her research of the linguistic metaphor. It seems that the uncanny meeting with Tom inspired Alma to imagine love again. Suddenly there is a lack in her existence, and she is able to dream again.
Alma’s transformation is triggered off in a comic incident where Tom decides to reject her request for sex. This moment is very ambiguous. On the one hand, it suggests the possibility that robots could develop volition and self-awareness. On the other hand, it suggests that Tom understands better than Alma that desire is premised on lack. The current hyper-technological world is filled with sensory overload. Communication technologies discourage any delay in getting what we want. Since everything is available at the push of a button, life quickly gets boring. All the more surprising that Tom should frustrate Alma’s desire for instant gratification.
Through this extraordinary intervention, Tom becomes Alma’s psychoanalyst. He points to the fact that human identity (ego) is just as constructed as the robotic one. Our lives consist of serial identifications with mirror images — the ideals, desires and expectations of others. Even the robot’s identity can be seen as our ego projection. It is as though we were falling in love with our own sculpture. The fear of losing humanity is justified, because ‘humanity’ is an unstable construct. We share more with the machine than we would like to think. What would make us human then? The film suggests it is our ability to use metaphors — to conjure up a presence out of absence. If robots can get us to use this talent again, they will be great companions.