“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
- C.S. Lewis, "The Four Loves"
- C.S. Lewis, "The Four Loves"
Hollywood has loved to feed our fantasies. For decades we have been given story after story of being swept off our feet, of being dazzled by an impossibly perfect human. The silver screen has made us buy into the delusion that human relationships can be fairy-tale perfect.
The cynic within wants to stand up and expose the lies, to bring our heightened dreams back down to reality, and to point out how let down we are going to be by each other.
Yet, I do not know that I believe this.
In my heart of hearts, I know that we are meant to live in community. Human beings are not solitary creatures. Both human intuit and divine revelation teaches this.
“No man is an island.”
“It is not good for man to be alone.”
‘Her,’ Spike Jonze’s heartbreaking parable on human relationships explores this truth in a way that Hollywood seldom dares to attempt. While most films leave you feeling warm and fluffy, or at least a bit enlightened, ‘Her’ is difficult to watch… because it touches those uncomfortably painful places in our soul.
(If you have not seen the film already, I would advise pausing for a couple hours… going and watching the film, then coming back here to finish this essay… a content advisory is on the film description on IMDB, if you would like to determine whether you feel comfortable viewing it)
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is the adorable nerd, the awkward sentimental type who has trouble facing pain… and this struggle is central to the entire plot. His battle with human emotions is raw and visceral, filled with fear and failure and the inability to formulate his thoughts into words that plagues all people at some point in their lives. We know he desires deep connection… but as so common in our lives, he doesn’t want the pain that comes with true connection. This, after all, is why his marriage failed.
Theodore’s mode of coping is to run. Run from the pain and seek fulfillment in ways that won’t tear his heart out - whether it’s sex, media, or casual dating. Even his job feeds his disillusionment with relationships. This ultimately leads him to Samantha… the sophisticated operating system that is programed to be a personal companion… a seemingly ‘pain-free’ relationship that knows you and exactly what you need.
But is any relationship truly pain free?
In order for love to be real, we must be vulnerable. If one does not open themselves up to love, is it even love at all? As C.S. Lewis stated in his book The Four Loves-
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken….
To love is to be vulnerable.”
Jonze captures this all too well in the way he follows Theodore’s journey. Samantha was supposed to be that “perfect” relationship that could fulfill him in whatever way he needed, yet without pain… but by imbuing her with humanity, her creators basically gave her the ability to have hurt and be hurt. Samantha is only an OS, so Theodore hears only her voice, yet he feels like he can give himself completely over to her. However, he is always going to be haunted by the pain he feels from his failed marriage if he keeps running from it. Jonze cleverly shows us this by inserting fleeting shots of memories quickly interlaced with close ups of Theodore’s face. In many of these shots, dialogue is sparse, music is subdued, and his eyes do all the talking.
It’s obvious that Theodore deeply desires the very thing he has been running from.
In the second half of the film there is a scene in which Theodore meets his ex Catherine for dinner (played by a particularly moody Rooney Mara). After finding out about Samantha, Catherine states “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real and I'm glad that you found someone. It's perfect.”
The words drip with pain, yet are completely true. How can a person truly experience life without being willing to open themselves up to feeling? Emotions are necessary - both good and bad. Pixar’s Inside Out did a spectacular job of demonstrating this. Both sadness and happiness can coexist in our hearts… it makes our memories real and powerful. Only by embracing each other FULLY can we truly live life.
Samantha: So what was it like being married?
Theodore: Well, it's hard, for sure. But there's something that feels so good about
sharing your life with somebody.
In ‘Her,’ Theodore is stuck in a rut… not truly living. He is existing. Surviving. Unable to realize his true capacity for love or creativity - because he is keeping himself isolated from within. He verbalizes his understanding that it feels good to share your life with somebody, yet he hasn't aligned his life with this hope.
Samantha even understands this, and she seeks throughout most of the film to help Theodore move forward - to live life, to seek beauty, to regain his confidence and creativity. It’s what many of us seek for in relationships - and what we desire in our hearts. We know we aren’t living the lives we were meant too. We are paralyzed by our fear… by the pain of loss.
What if I lose you?
We say these words to so many things. Whether relationships, positions, emotions… we live our lives in fear that we will screw things up and lose them. We believe the lie that our identity is found in our performance, so if we fail at a relationship or lose our job it’s easy to automatically let it affect our self worth. So what would happen if we accepted the pain we cause each other as a part of growth? What if we understood that the difficult times are the things that help us grow? If we turn around and face the mess - even if we have tears in our eyes while we do it - and learn to let go.
What if we forgave?
What if we embraced the ways in which our stories shape each other into the people we are?
Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is unconventional, yet the point is not to decry the use of electronics in modern day society. It’s not even a warning about becoming addicted to our phones (and believe me, I know MANY people who thought that was the point of this film). The point Jonze makes is that we are all searching for love. We all want to BE KNOWN. Yet, this is impossible if we do not allow ourselves to open up to the possibility of pain as well. This is the only way in which we can truly allow people into our lives - vulnerability.
At the end of the film, Theodore finally stops running. It takes pain, it takes losing Samantha for him to realize this, but he embraces the loss as a way to connect - as a way to be human. One of the final shots of the film is a beautiful human moment between Theodore and his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) who had just experienced a painful breakup herself. They both have experienced pain, but neither of them shies away from it or pretends that they are fine. They allow each other to feel and silently watch the horizon from the top of their building together… It’s a beautiful, yet raw moment. Neither has answers. Neither has learned the secret to a painless life… but they are willing to share in that pain together. Jonze demonstrates in his final scene the importance and power of true community. It doesn’t have to be romantic, it just has to be real and honest.
Maybe this can be a wake up call for our own relationships.
Letter from Theodore:
I've been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I'm sorry for that. I'll always love you 'cause we grew up together and you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I'm grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I'm sending you love. You're my friend to the end. Love, Theodore.
'Her' is available now on blu-ray, dvd, and home streaming sites. It is rated R and contains adult language and situations. Viewer discretion is advised.