Spike Jonze's Her

In her final installment from the recent New York Film Festival, Critics Academy member Shelley Farmer takes a look at alternative relationships as manifest in James Franco's Child of God and Spike Jonze's Her.

This year’s New York Film Festival offered up an impressively broad view of romantic love, from the light-hearted time traveling romance in About Time to the realistic rendering of first love in Blue is the Warmest Color to the co-dependency of The Immigrant to the literal love through the ages of Only Lovers Left Alive. However, two films were notable for their depiction of romantic love projected on things, rather than other people. In both James Franco’s Child of God and Spike Jonze’s Her, male protagonists, incapable of forming real relationships, create the women with whom they fall in love, with deeply unsettling results.

The creation of a female partner occurs in its most grotesque form in Child of God. The film, based on a 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel (though set in the 1960s), follows the feral, frighteningly unhinged Lester Ballard, played with spitting, snarling intensity by Scott Haze. The first half of the film has an episodic feeling – numerous short scenes take place, their significance uncertain. However, as the film progresses, it becomes more and more focused on Lester’s total isolation and his attempts to create some sort of human contact.

Incapable of interacting with real people, Lester soon finds that he must create his own companion. Finding a woman’s dead body in a car, he carries it home. There, he treats her like a living lover, buying her a new dress, acting out a “date” with her, sleeping with her in his bed, and having disturbingly passionate sex. After the tumbledown shack in which he lives goes up in flame, incinerating his corpse-lover, Lester proceeds to murder local girls and keep their bodies as his own private collection.

The reasons for Lester’s isolation and derangement are never spelled out specifically – voiceovers from longtime residents of his Tennessee town suggest that he was never the same after his father’s gruesome suicide, while his inhospitable living conditions and physical isolation have undoubtedly pushed him farther from normalcy. It is possible for the viewer to maintain some distance from Lester and the terrifying “relationships” he creates, as they clearly develop from his very specific circumstances. Lester has been reduced to basic survival, merely fulfilling a human’s most essential needs, and Haze’s nearly indecipherable speech and animalistic physical affectations fashion a character pitiable in his grotesquerie but one that the audience can easily dismiss as unlike themselves. However, in his interactions with his corpse-girlfriend, filmed with surprising tenderness and poignancy, it becomes increasingly difficult not to recognize a universal human longing in Lester’s behavior. While this does not negate how disturbing these interactions are – particularly in their representation of gendered, sexually charged violence – the most unsettling aspect is that, however extreme Lester’s actions may be, the longing that motivates it is ultimately relatable.

James Franco's Child of God

Closer to home and all the more disturbing for it is the creation of a partner in Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her. Early on, the film resembles many modern, gentle dramas that focus on lonely men and the vivacious women who fulfill their every emotional need and force them to reconnect with life, though taking the premise even further in that the woman is an operating system (OS) that is literally programmed to be the man’s perfect partner. However, the film is ultimately both a critique of these sorts of films, as well as an incisive portrait of an increasingly isolated technological world.

The film presents the lead character Theodore’s attachment to his OS, Samantha, as a means of coping with the dissolution of his marriage. So far, so typical melancholy love story. However, the film holds him accountable for his relationship, slowly revealing his inability to deal with the emotional demands of being with a real woman, who has her own needs and desires that perhaps do not align with his. Further, the film’s more insidiously unsettling assertion, which sets it apart from Child of God, is that the need to create an ideal partner is not a matter of personal psychosis, but a symptom of an entire society emotionally stunted by technology.

Theodore’s friend and confidant, Amy, separates from her partner and becomes best friends with the female operating system he left behind. While this dynamic still seems gendered (Theodore requires a romantic, sexual relationship from his operating system, while Amy is more fulfilled by a platonic relationship with another “woman”), this relationship and anecdotes within the film about countless others situate the human-OS relationship as widespread and totally normal. Given the ability to interact with figures programmed to fulfill one’s needs exactly, many within the world of the film decide that the ease and safety of artificial relationships are preferable to the hard work of loving another person.

Despite depicting the imaginative creation of partners in such varied ways, Child of God and Her both leave the viewer with a feeling of deep discomfort. In Lester’s gruesome actions, borne of isolation, the viewer can maintain an emotional distance, while also recognizing a glimmer of their own humanity within the degraded figure. Pathetic scenes of his tender care for the young woman’s corpse inspire both revulsion and the thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.' Her, on the other hand, with its recognizable technology-dependency forces the thought, ‘Perhaps I’m already there?’