IF YOU WERE a god and had every possible human proclivity at your fingertips, on a drawing board, which ones would you choose to embody your most perfect partner? Beautiful eyes? An ability to laugh? A talent for the spontaneous? Large feet? This is roughly the premise of the AI (artificial intelligence) romance story I’m your man, which features on this year’s European Film Festival; designed to be hybrid, it offers limited screenings and online access in Johannesburg and Cape Town, between 13 and 23 October, Mbabane between 21 and 23 October and Maseru, between 28 and 30 October.
Alma (Maren Eggert) is a scientist to her fingertips. She isn’t married, has no dependants and is willing to go the extra mile in the name of experiment, for the price of finalising her study into ancient cuneiform script. Even join an AI lonely hearts club, where holograms and robots are indistinguishable from the flesh and blood variety.
But this is no ordinary hit-and-miss lonely hearts’ situation. Alma is hooked up with an AI product designed specifically for her. And she’s given three weeks to make sense of it all. Tom (Dan Stevens) comes with all the bells and whistles of a real man, including a bit of emotional capacity, an understanding of nuance, a suggestion of empathy and a set expression of casualness, with his mouth in a semi-smile. He’s beautiful and lithe and tall and muscular. Convincing in every sense.
With a story not that different from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, or any of its commercial offshoots, such as Pretty Woman, the work is morally troubling. Can Alma work with the challenges that this new “man” brings to her and her social setting? Granted, he learns quickly. But she’s no philosophical novice herself. She has the added responsibility of her elderly, flailing and widowed father, which runs as a central thread of mortality and vulnerability through the work. To say nothing of her old flame, Julian.
The work is funny, sad and deeply uncomfortable at the same time. Every engagement with Tom is shadowed by a whole concatenation of thoughts on your part, involving his robotic status and how this could affect Alma sexually, as she ages, in her relationships with others and so on. It’s a little like an episode in the Netflix-released series Black Mirror, but less crassly black – and possibility more sinister, for that reason.
Ultimately, the piece ends as it must, but its central ideas ring both hollow and disturbing in terms of what AI could do with its own potential to smear away the messy idiosyncrasies of ordinary folk. And replace them with algorithms so perfect, there is nothing left.
- I’m your man is directed by Maria Schrader and features a cast headed by Inga Busch, Maren Eggert, Christoph Glaubacker, Marlene-Sophie Haagen, Wolfgang Hübsch, Sandra Hüller, Amal Keller, Hans Löw, Annika Meier, Gabriel Munoz Munoz, Karolin Oesterling, Monika Oschek, Victor Pape-Thies, Mignon Remé, Henriette Richter-Röhl, Franz Schmidt, Sebastian Schwarz, Falilou Seck, Dan Stevens and Jürgen Tarrach. Written by Jan Schomburg and Maria Schrader based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky, it is produced by Lisa Blumenberg and features creative input by Tobias Wagner (music), Benedict Neuenfels (cinematography), Hansjörg Weissbrich (editing), Anja Dihrberg-Siebler (casting), Cora Pratz (production design) and Anette Guther (costumes). In German with English subtitles, it is part of the 9th European Film Festival South Africa, screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and online, 13-23 October 2022; and Mbabane at the Alliance Française, 21-23 October and Maseru at the Alliance Française, 28-30 October.