Spike Jonze’s love story Her and Alain Guiradie’s thriller Stranger by the Lake do not immediately suggest themselves as an obvious double-bill. But both effectively address the same subject: intimacy issues. Her is steeped in technology and set at some unspecified point in the future not so distant that we cannot see where it overlaps with our own world. The sight of an entire population walking around talking not to one another but to computer operating systems accessible via near-invisible earpieces is certainly approaching the realms of documentary realism. If you are still startled whenever you see lone figures ranting and gesticulating, and if you have to forcibly remind yourself that they are in all likelihood speaking into a hands-free mobile device, then Her will seem very much as though it is taking place in the streets where you live. Probably the most alien aspect of the film’s futuristic vision is to be found in the area of costume. The bad news is this: unflattering high-waisted slacks are in for men. It almost makes you pine for a dystopia.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix at his least guarded as the professional letter-writer Theodore Twombly, who composes personal correspondence on behalf of others. At beautiful-handwritten-letters.com, he ventriloquises his clients’ private emotions, serving often for years on end as a romantic or familial go-between at one remove to people he has never met. Intimacy has become relative, long-distance and marketable. A stranger can articulate feelings that are beyond your grasp, while friends can be the virtual imps who populate your favourite interactive game. (Hardly an absurd idea in an age where a Facebook “friend” need not be anyone you have ever clapped eyes on.) It’s perfectly natural in this context that Theodore would fall in love with his computer operating system, a self-evolving entity (“voice” doesn’t really cover it) named Samantha, who is played, unseen, by Scarlett Johansson in one of the richest voice performances of recent years. No—one of the richest performances per se.
A concept like Her can be expressed satirically or sincerely but it can’t easily be both. Jonze, who also wrote the screenplay, plumps wisely for the second option. It’s the right move. Sincerity is his stock-in-trade. He directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which both examined existential isolation through the prism of screwball, from scripts by Charlie Kaufman which would have felt outlandish and warped in any hands. But the joke, and the kick, was enhanced by Jonze’s straight-laced, poker-faced approach. No matter how demented the situations became (and remember that the first of those films climaxed with a breakneck chase through the compartments of John Malkovich’s subconscious), Jonze kept the temperature cool. The same approach works wonders for Her. Theodore and Samantha having sex together amounts to one of the more peculiar scenes here, but by the time they are going on picnics with friends any resistance on our part has been steadily broken down by the film’s ingenuous tone. What is left is an incisive, even uplifting account of how human beings forge and pursue emotional connections in the most unpromising climates. It’s a love story told predominantly through close-ups of one person. It’s very us and very now, isn’t it? Very 21st century.
The visual landscape in Stranger by the Lake couldn’t be any more different. The action of the film is confined entirely to a secluded lake hidden from a rural road by a small, dense forest. It’s beautiful and serene but also charged with a tension that is not exclusively sexual. Over the course of a summer, men come here to sunbathe, swim and have sex with one another. The film insinuates that something else is afoot. There is talk of a silurus in the lake but perhaps the real hazards lie on dry land.
There is no score but we don’t need music to alert us to danger. Besides, a sudden jump in the sound design—a cut, say, to a shot of trees being roughly tousled by the wind—can be as startling to our ears as any Herrmann-esque jabbing strings, and Guiraudie is not slow to realise that. The erotic suspense of cruising lends itself to the thriller genre; the desperation of the eager, boyish Franck (Pierre de Landonchamps) to find someone, to not be the one left alone on the sand, as well as the ease with which he slips from lust to love, makes him more than usually vulnerable to danger. With the arrival of Michel (Christophe Paou) and his unsettling 1970s facial hair, things begin to get stranger and stranger by the lake.
The parity between Her and Stranger by the Lake arises from their frankness about the lengths to which we will go for intimacy. Oddly for such a suspenseful film, Stranger by the Lake is rather encouraging in its insistence on the different shapes that human connection can take. Franck’s desires are tested in a moral and political framework—when a detective shows up at the lake to make enquiries about a suspected murder, he rather presumptuously collars Franck on the matter of community, asking whether it bothers him that “one of your own” may have been killed. And the movie mounts a provocative analysis of that idea of tribes, extending to a plangent, recently divorced straight man who longs for a species of male companionship not catered for at the lake, or anywhere else (“Why do you have to have sex to sleep together?”). He seems incredulous that Franck self-identifies as gay and scoffs at the idea that anyone is. But he aches for a connection as much as anyone else at the lake; he’s just the only one who puts into words, rather than action.
Many of the column inches attracted so far by Stranger by the Lake have been devoted to inches of a different sort. But while the movie is explicit in portraying its characters’ desires, that only raises the stakes. Without the rest of the film’s corresponding emotional intensity, the “money” shots might seem gratuitous. Instead, they’re all of a piece with a picture that investigates the highs and the hazards of our ceaseless search for intimacy. Paired with Jonze’s film, it makes quite the his-and-hers matching set.
Her is released 14 February. Stranger by the Lake is released 21 February.