Spike Jonze is interested in loneliness. His new film, Her, is a semi-futuristic exploration of one lonely man’s struggle to learn what love is and what love is not. Here’s what we know about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He has a broken heart. His marriage to Catherine has come to a devastatingly sad end. At BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, he writes heartfelt, warm, romantic letters; to other people’s loves. The feelings he puts in the letters mean nothing to him. He’s afraid to open his heart again. Why is he so scared? Having his wife leave him doesn’t help. But, where else might we look to understand what would tempt Theodore to fall in love with his OS instead of another real woman? Who is the first Her in anyone’s life?
The First Her? Mom
Mom. On the surface, Her doesn’t seem to be about Moms. Yet, Moms come up in a number of different ways. Remember when Theodore first signs on to his new O.S. 1, before he’s assigned to Samantha? The system wants to know what his relationship to his mother was like. It wasn’t good. Is this question designed to give him an OS that will fit exactly what he needs in order to work out his early experiences with his Mom? Perhaps Amy’s Mom wasn’t terribly available either.
She’s making a documentary on her Mom sleeping. And, she’s also just finished a funny game called “Perfect Mom.” I think we could say that a failed relationship with a mother and the later relationship problems that develop – which, at least for Theodore, involves a fantasy of the perfect woman – is at the heart of the film, Her.
When Mom Makes Things About Her
Early in the film, Theodore complains: “The problem with Mom is – if I tried to tell her something about myself, it was always about her.” Theodore’s Mom is a preoccupied, self-involved mother who never has him on her mind. I think we can assume she left him floating in her oblivion from the beginning, without the security of a mother’s interest.
In his job, he tries to “feel people,” something his mother didn’t do for him. He doesn’t trust any woman, so he’s walled himself off. And, because of this, he made his ex-wife mad: “I hid myself from her. I left her all alone in the relationship.” Just like his mother left him alone as a child. Theodore’s self-protective system backfires, though. Now, he’s alone again.
When a child is let down early in life by a mother who isn’t emotionally reachable, he (or she) either turns away from real human relationships and/or develops the fantasy of an idealized mother who is always there; a fantasy no human can satisfy.
For someone like Theodore, frightened of being disappointed and hurt, there is also very likely a subtle (or not-so-subtle) voice in his mind that mocks him if he even considers letting anyone in; that tells him he’s crazy to want or need love. Amy says it pretty clearly: “Anyone who falls in love is a freak.” If he tells himself he’s a fool to fall in love, then having a relationship with a device that poses as a woman who will never leave him makes a lot of sense.
A Her Who’s Always There
We can see, then, what is so tempting about Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is there all the time; in his pocket; at his bedside; she’s ready to listen to him at every moment. She’s attuned to his every need (“I figured you were hungry”)—until she evolves and isn’t any longer. She talks to him, wants to know what’s on his mind. When he’s sad, when he’s angry, she’s right there: “What’s Wrong?” She’s the best of a good Mom to a small child. An experience he never had.
Theodore is assigned to just the right OS. His relationship with Samantha is (strange to say) ultimately transformative. She helps him in ways I would as a psychoanalyst – to let go of his need to control her every waking moment, a need born out of his fear of being left. Samantha puts Theodore’s needs first for a while. This is something his mother could not do. And, now, he’s very anxious at any sign of separateness. He tries to keep Samantha’s attentions only on him, to control her time so he doesn’t feel dropped and unimportant. When she begins to want her own life, he feels what he felt as a child – the anxieties he must work out.
He believes she’s abandoning him; neglecting his feelings and needs; preoccupied with herself; like his self-absorbed Mom. And, he begins to feel his jealousy of others who have her interest. The people she’s with when she isn’t with him. But Theodore must face what each of us must face: she has other people in her life (8,316 to be exact, with 641 competitors for her love!).
She reassures him, though: “It doesn’t take away at all from how I feel about you.” This is true of a mother’s love for a father, siblings, friends, and work—if she’s a mother who can give enough in the first place. Much like a good mother would help her child do, Samantha teaches Theodore an important lesson in any relationship: having a separate life is not a rejection.
Turning The Past Around
It’s not easy to turn the past around, but that’s what psychoanalysts are for: to help heal fears of being hurt, not unlike Theodore’s experience with Samantha does for him. The turning point in Her comes when Theodore sees his boss with a real girlfriend on his lap and it begins to dawn on him that an OS is a poor substitute. He tells Samantha: “Maybe we shouldn’t pretend you’re a person.” Theodore learns what love is and what love is not.
Love certainly is not expecting someone to “live your book.” He writes to Catherine: “I needed you to be or say everything I put on you. I’m sorry for that.”By the end of the film, Theodore bravely faces the hard truth that the utopian love created with his OS is not reality at all. In the real world, love is no more perfect than any person can be. We see Theodore tentatively inching towards Amy, a real woman. Just maybe, he can learn to live with his feelings (and not his fantasies) and yet find a way to feel safe about love.