Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters. Perhaps “writes” is the wrong word; he dictates letters to his computer, which then “handwrites” them for him. He writes letters for couples, for friends, for absent children. Theodore is very good at his job; his letters are poetic, funny and seemingly heartfelt. He reads a letter he’s written to a new friend, a letter in which a lover travelling abroad details his desire to “punch the world in the face” and his love for his partner’s crooked little tooth.
Theodore knows about that crooked little tooth because he’s been writing this couple’s letters for years. Like any love story, this couple’s bond is embedded in emotions familiar to all while differentiated by specifics. Specifics like that crooked little tooth. Her presents this moment without silliness or satire, but rather with sincerity. Twombley’s name might be straight out of a Roald Dahl novel, but this is not a trifling film; it resonates with emotional authenticity. The idea of a couple using a third party to write letters, a thread of artificiality in their tapestry, is not worthy of derision. Underneath the surface, one wonders at the details of the relationship between these two people – do they have trouble communicating, or are the letters merely a by-product of a busy life? But, significantly, you don’t question the legitimacy of their connection, their relationship.
It’s a small moment in Her but an important one. You see, Theodore goes on to date that new friend he was reading the letter to. He falls in love. Her name is Samantha, and she is an OS: an Operating System (this is generally where the bad Siri jokes go; feel free to make up your own). Her voice (Scarlett Johansson) is in his ear, her eyes in a smartphone camera, her spirit shared with his.
I think I had expected Her to serve as a commentary on the rise of social media or some such nonsense. These ideas are present in the film, but not expanded upon. Questions of the relevance of privacy – when Samantha and Theodore are dating, she reads every bit of correspondence he sends or receives – or the potential for social media to instigate introversion or insularity – as the film progresses, more and more of the people Theodore pass in the street have their heads in their phones – are raised but the screenplay is not interested in answering them. The focus is unquestionably on the unique love story between Samantha and Theodore.
Like the couple from before, like any couple, their relationship is defined in its specificity and its universality, and it’s depicted with honesty. Like any couple, their relationship is complicated, and challenging, and rewarding. Computer algorithms based on intuition established Samantha’s personality as one to complement Theodore’s, but she’s not some subservient servant, beholden to his beck and call. She may not be a person in the technical sense, but she has her own desires, thoughts and motivations.
It’s easy to read Her as an allegory, analogous to so many aspects of modern life; the way we interact with people using technology. It’s equally easy to find ways to relate it to the universal challenges of relationships – the film explicitly addresses the challenges of trusting a new partner, of sharing a life with someone and then having to rebuild a live without them (Theodore has recently separated from his childhood sweetheart and wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara)). But this isn’t some thesis on relationships or futurism – it’s a love story. What makes the film so special is that it’s more interested in the specifics than the universal. Her is moving and beautiful because it respects and represents the truth of a relationship that could have so easily been a joke.