September 24, 2021 12:57 PM EDT

The pulse of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, about a man so in love with an illusion he can’t see the reality before him, thrums inside every person who’s obsessed with movies, but the Pygmalion dreams it’s drawn from are universal. In its subterranean way, Vertigo speaks to anyone who has tried to sculpt a relationship into something it can never be. I’m Your Man, a smart, tender, melancholy comedy from German director Maria Schrader, is like an AI Vertigo: If you could create your perfect android partner, intimately tailored to your desires, your intelligence, your tastes, would you do it? And if so, would this meticulously programmed individual ever be capable of curing the universal human affliction of loneliness?

It would be easy to make a terrible movie from that idea, but Schrader has made a marvelous one. Alma (Maren Eggert, who won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for this performance) is a Berlin academic who has reluctantly accepted an assignment no one else will take, because everyone else in her orbit is happily paired off. She has agreed to test-drive a humanoid robot designed to her exact specifications. The two will live together for three weeks, after which she’ll deliver her assessment: Are these robots sophisticated enough to become citizens of the real world—to get passports and drivers’ licenses, like everyday people—but also, perhaps more important, can they make suitable romantic companions for perennially single people?

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Alma’s robot, Tom (Dan Stevens), is supposedly exactly her type—he loves Rilke, though who doesn’t?—yet she resists his charms from the minute she’s introduced to him by the manufacturer’s rep (played, with metallic terseness, by the wonderful German actor Sandra Hüller). It doesn’t help that Tom malfunctions on the dance floor of the club where they’ve just met. After he’s repaired, she escorts him, with his single bachelor’s rolling suitcase in hand, to her flat, a mess of books and papers and other detritus of academic life.

The next morning—Tom doesn’t need to sleep, though he pretends to—Alma awakens to a fully tidied apartment. Tom has helpfully arranged the books on her shelves by color, exactly the way she doesn’t want them. He’s wearing a James Bond bathrobe, and he’s made some pancakes for breakfast. Later, because his robot brain is convinced she works too hard, he draws a rose-petal-strewn bath for her, holding a champagne flute aloft like a knowledge-engineered bon vivant. Alma, so cerebral and skeptical she’s practically made those qualities her religion, balks. (Her academic specialty is Sumerian cuneiform, and she’s on the verge of a major breakthrough.) Tom, his eyes shiny with programmed wisdom—it’s an “I know yourself better than you know yourself” look if ever there were one—informs her that “93 percent of German women dream of this.” She bursts his robot bubble, to the degree that’s possible, by stating flatly that she’s part of the other 7 percent.

You can guess what eventually happens in I’m Your Man—but you probably can’t guess exactly what happens, and how Alma, so happy-lonely in her own habits, comes to realize not that she’s missing a man in her life, but that the key to living is to remain open to surprise, always. That’s a fine needle to thread, but Schrader does it beautifully. (The script is by Schrader and Schomburg, based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky.) In-the-know people are already hip to Stevens as an international treasure: he’s a Shakespearean-literate actor with a gift for ridiculously out-there comedy—he was dazzling as the flamboyant Russian pop czar Alexander Lemtov in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. As Tom, Stevens has a scrubbed, robotty elegance. “I brush my teeth and clean my body,” he informs Alma. But he’s been programmed well, a little too well for Alma’s liking, and the duo’s conversations—and the spaces between the words—come to have an intensity that rattles her. In one breathtaking scene, as the two take a nature break in the countryside, Alma awakens from a small nap to see Tom standing in a clearing, surrounded by curiously unperturbed bucks; their does soon follow, enveloping him as if he were one of their own. The deer startle when they spot Alma, and Tom explains that they have no fear of him because he doesn’t smell like a human. And yet, in this moment, he seems more a part of nature than most humans—as if the dreams programmed into him have as much life as any we humans dream ourselves.

As Alma, Eggert captures an elusive something about happily single women: She’s in the position of being able to find out what happens when you can have exactly what you want—if, in fact, you know what you want, which is unlikely. I’m Your Man is funny in such a gentle way that you may not realize how piercing it is until after the credits have rolled. Loneliness is a shape that can’t always be filled, on command, by another human. Sometimes it takes a robot, but also a sense of self—and that, for all of us, is a state that’s constantly, frustratingly, gloriously in flux.

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