Emotional Health · Health

The Movie “Her” and Its Wisdom About Love (Dr. Ford on Emotional Health)

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here’s her take on that significant futuristic-romance film, Her.


tumblr_mxpuiqCYXF1seyhpmo1_1280-1Broken connection: Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara in “Her”

In a very strong field of “Best Picture” Nominees this year, Spike Jonze’s new film Her stands out as superlative. It takes a timeless but overworked subject—falling in love—and gives it a 21st century twist, along the way illuminating profound truths about the nature of romantic attachments.

Joachin Phoenix plays a man who has recently been separated from his wife (Rooney Mara), shown mostly in flashbacks throughout the film. It is sometime in the near future—soon enough so that most things are recognizable, except Los Angeles, which now has a fabulous public transit system and very few cars (we can only hope!). Men wear high-waisted pants, and technology has advanced to the point where you can now buy an operating system that is designed to be exclusively responsive to an owner’s needs.  Theodore, the protagonist, gets one, who introduces herself as “Samantha” (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). Romance ensues, and with it, inevitably, heartbreak.

The trailer (above) for this film, which played for three months prior to its release, was falsely saccharine and misleading. In fact, the premise sounded so awful to me that I was surprised to find that not only does the movie work, but Jonze’s script is thoughtful and deep. Samantha is so exquisitely responsive to Theodore that he forgets that she is not a real person, and, amazingly, so does the audience. The development of intimacy is beautifully portrayed as the pair making up the “couple” learn about each other, share inside jokes, and have bonding experiences (including cyber sex).

Samantha is the perfect partner for the average self-absorbed 21st century guy: she is always there when he needs her, always in a great mood, and, best of all, he can “turn her off” whenever he wants to. Soon, though, he doesn’t want to—he loves her, and we can truly see why. But wait! One day, he turns on the “OS” and she doesn’t immediately respond. She has been communicating with others in cyberspace, developing her own interests, becoming more evolved.

Samantha is developing a separate self, with an independent center of initiative, and thus the warm symbiosis that they have been enjoying is threatened. Can love survive this breach? This is one of the essential paradoxes of romantic love: we want to possess the other, yet ideal love demands that we care about the growth and development of the beloved. Can love be sustained if that growth takes your partner somewhere you can’t go? Will love last when you find out who your partner really is: a separate person who is not just a repository for your projections and fantasies, but someone with his/her own ideas and needs?

The wonderful irony of Her, of course, is that Samantha was designed not to diverge into a separate center of initiative but instead was supposed to be responsive only to her owner. Trouble in paradise begins when this fantasy is shattered, and the film suggests that love cannot be sustained when only one partner’s needs are satisfied. The OS had a fatal flaw in its design, the film suggests: Samantha is built to grow and evolve, but it is that very process that cools the ardor by making her less slavishly devoted to Theodore’s needs alone. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” as Shakespeare wrote: We begin to wonder if this is the issue that caused the breakup of Theodore’s marriage. At the same time, a neighbor, played by Amy Adams, also goes through a breakup during the course of the story. Again, nothing specific is named as the cause, but she and her husband are portrayed as having different ideas and goals. Meanwhile, she and Theodore have a warm, sweet, real friendship that does not seem to ever spark the embers that clearly lie there between these two real but humanly limited people.

Theodore’s job, which is writing “handwritten” love letters (on his computer) for others, echoes Cyrano de Bergerac, the classic story that explores the theme of romantic fantasy versus reality. What happens when the “disembodied” lover becomes flesh and blood? Can the three-dimensional other ever measure up to the projected one? Psychoanalysts believe that falling in love always involves an aspect of “transference”—that is, the re-finding of an old lost love from our earliest years in the contemporary relationship. It is the ability to sustain a connection with a partner beyond the initial phase of this transference—when we discover and accept the other person’s true self—that separates romantic infatuation from lasting love. Love, even in cyberspace, isn’t easy.

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