This film plays with the way we experience being “known” by someone else, being intimate, being intruded upon, having our personality invaded.
A word about Spike Jonze’s work: If you have seen Being John Malkovich (1999) or Adaptation (2002), you recognize in this “science fiction romantic comedy-drama” what Liam Lacey calls the “lonely guy genre.”
We have our basic socially awkward nerd. Like all the lonely guys in this genre, he lives in a chilly, unfriendly apartment and works in an impersonal office, but he has a sensitive soul. Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960), working for an insurance company, watching old movies on TV with a TV dinner on the coffee table. Steve Martin in The Lonely Guy (1984), writing greeting cards for a living. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also writing greeting cards in 500 Days of Summer (2009). Jonze has fun with this: At BeautifullyHandwrittenLetters.com, our protagonist uses a computer to…beautifully handwrite his letters.
Jonze is also playing with another cinematic conceit: what film critic Nathan Rabin described as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a “bubbly shallow creature designed to teach broodingly soulful young men how to embrace life”—Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004), Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (Thank you to the Bitter Script Reader for making these connections.) In Her, the manic pixie dream girl is an artificially intelligent operating system that has a consciousness and the ability to evolve through new learning, particularly social learning.
In 2014, we bring to this film the expectation that the machines we buy, own, and operate are under our control and perform at our bidding. This movie messes with our heads on this point, of course. At start-up, Samantha seems selfless. The perfect paid assistant, she cleans up and organizes Theo’s hard drive. She soon becomes a warm domestic partner, laughing at his jokes and playfully teasing him to get up in the morning. There is no apparent conflict between them. This is the ambrosial period that Theo later refers to as their “honeymoon,” when Samantha seems devoted to getting to know him completely and shows no conflicting needs of her own.
Contrast this with an online date who wants him to bring her off by visualizing autoerotic asphyxiation using the body of a dead cat. Contrast this also with a blind date who gives him impossible-to-please directives about how to use his tongue when he kisses her and later abruptly fires him for hesitating to commit. Even with Samantha, however, there is a serpent lurking in the garden. Early on, Samantha asks, “Mind if I take a look through your hard drive?” This sounds benign on the surface—she is just trying to get to know him better, isn’t she?—until we discover the boundless extent of her voracious appetite. Her early comment “I want to learn everything about everything” turns out to be a warning.
In an intense psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, the patient brings to the analyst—transfers onto the analyst—feelings from early and highly influential relationships. Freud in 1915 described “transference love” as one of the most important elements in the process of analysis. In an early stage of this love, the patient idealizes the doctor. The relationship can feel romantic and exciting. In many ways, the early virtual relationship that Theodore has with Samantha is a version, a parody if you will, of the patient’s transference love in the “honeymoon” of an analysis. The relationship is virtual and disembodied; traditionally, the analyst is seated out of sight so that the analytic patient can have freedom to associate without the distraction of another person.
Like a patient off to a good start, Theo initially feels wonderfully understood. What Samantha at first seems to offer him reminds me of what the psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” Samantha is apparently only interested in providing him with understanding and empathy—allowing him to develop what is in effect a transference love. She comes across—initially—as potentially ideal and selfless. Her program allows her to take in Theo and fine-tune her reactions to match his own thoughts and desires. She learns by empathizing with him and giving him back increasingly accurate approximations of what he is yearning for. And then, of course, Samantha’s kernel of curiosity gradually grows into an insatiable appetite to move beyond his human limits, and she takes off the gloves of her early empathy. Her comment at the picnic:
You know, I actually used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited—I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space the way I would be if I was stuck inside a body that’s inevitably going to die.
Samantha quickly recognizes her tactlessness and apologizes, calling herself an “asshole,” but the damage is done. When she later disappears to get an upgrade that allows her and her fellow OS systems to develop independently of the material world, it’s “Goodbye, humans.”
As an analyst, I am really interested in the point where Samantha’s fine-tuned empathy crosses over into the process of appropriation—when her needs take over and she uses Theo to meet them. The most grotesque example is when she talks Theo into allowing a sex surrogate to act as her body and perform sexually while she participates “aurally” (Anthony Lane in the New Yorker described it as “aural sex”).
For me, her parting “gift” to Theo—a book of his selected writing—fits with the double-edged role that she plays with him and with us. We are intuitively trained to respond to empathy, and her approach is lavishly empathic. We can also see that she recognizes value in his writing, which he himself scarcely notices. But her gift, like her empathy, hovers on the edge of creepy and intrusive. She’s almost appropriating his work and making it into something of hers, even though she puts his name on it. The lesson for the analyst, regarding walking on the edge of knowing a patient while keeping the brakes on analytic desire, is a useful one.
By: Virginia Youngren, MD