In his debut film, Zachary Wigon addresses the mysteries of modern communication in ways both novel and familiar.
The story follows a couple, Cody and Virginia, who speak nightly over Skype, as he lives in New York and she completes an academic program in Berlin. They are familiar with each other’s apartments, and speak with the comfortable rhythms of an established couple, though even their early scenes together hint at tension and secrecy in the relationship.
Cody suspects that Virginia is not actually in Berlin, but lives in Manhattan (he even has a map and collection of “clues” that point towards this). It’s no spoiler to reveal that his hunch is correct, as Wigon lets the audience in on Virginia’s whereabouts and activities before Cody discovers them in a series of scenes that follow her on Craigslist and Blendr hookups.
The film uses its images in innovative fashion. Notably, Wigon and cinematographer Rob Leitzell pull off the impressive trick of making Skype conversations visually arresting, with creative framing and inventive use of reflections. Wigon also demonstrates a mastery of atmosphere, sustaining a paranoid yet melancholic mood throughout most of the narrative.
But the standout scene is a relatively comic sequence in which Cody tries to gather information about Virginia after inviting himself into the apartment of a barista she knows. Though the stakes are ultimately low – the most Cody risks is the embarrassment of a stranger’s reproach – the scene sustains a high pitch of suspense. It gives us the first hints of a filmmaker confident enough to use deliberate pacing to let unease gradually mount over an extended period of time.
While this creation of tension through craft rather than content is very effective for the duration of a scene, the same trick proves difficult to sustain for the length of a feature film. The characters’ depression is palpable, but the audience rarely gets any sense of true love or even chemistry between the two. The film begins when the relationship has already begun to curdle, and even a flashback to the beginning of their acquaintance comes across as two clever people chatting amiably, rather than the makings of a romance.
Cody and Virginia speak every day, seeing each other’s faces, each other’s homes. They can look each other up on Facebook and research friends and the places they have been. Despite all of this, their conversations consist mostly of idle chatter – without having ever met, they reach a point of complacency, with conversations that hardly accomplish anything more than killing time.
While Wigon’s film lacks emotional weight, that deficiency is not a matter of style over substance, but an effective comment on the peculiarly isolating nature of modern communication technology.
The central elements of his story are not unique to the modern world, and would not seem unusual to any fan of epistolary romance, from 18th century novels to “The Shop Around the Corner.” Even “You’ve Got Mail” — Ernst Lubitsch film’s internet-age grandchild — retained the spirit of these predecessors through its use of the written word. In Wigon’s reliance on Skype, where the visual and audio elements create the impression of a real interaction, the very believability of the facsimile precludes the possibility of the fantasy so central to romance. If a love letter offers the promise of a dream come true, “The Heart Machine” suggests that online romance is something closer to a nightmare.
“The Heart Machine” opens today at the Cinema Village and is also available on several VOD platforms.