In both Her and Ruby Sparks (which I discussed last year), a man suddenly discovers that there’s a woman living in his house, whom he hadn’t—to his knowledge—invited in. In both of these films, the woman eventually leaves. In both, there’s an extreme power mismatch. In Ruby Sparks, the power differential is much worse than in Her: Calvin, the writer-protagonist of the film, conjures Ruby out of thin air, simply by writing about her, and throughout the entire film, he is able to dictate her actions and her personality, simply by writing what he wants on his typewriter. She can only helplessly attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance his changes produce, and make up stuff to fill in the blanks. Eventually, Calvin’s misuse of Ruby descends to serious abuse.
When I was thinking about how these two films are similar, I was struck by how much they, on the contrary, differ from Truly, Madly, Deeply or Don De Lillo’s The Body Artist. In both those stories, a person appears unexpectedly, and uninvited, and refuses to leave. In those stories, the house belongs to the woman, and it’s a man who suddenly appears. In both, he asks something of her, which she’s not prepared to give, but refuses to go away. But in both those stories, the man turns out to be the ghost of her husband. She had thought that when he died, she would be alone. She turns out to have been mistaken. He is going to hang around a while longer. In Truly, Madly, Deeply the husband is simply an annoyance, always underfoot, having long, noisy rehearsals and equally long, noisy parties with his musician friends, for which she has to shop. Still, he’s recognizably her husband and she is still attracted to him (the haunting helps her mourn). In The Body Artist, on the other hand, he is almost unrecognizable and more literally a haunting. Here, it seems very important that the wife realize this spirit being is her husband, truly her husband, in spite of his silence and the difference in his appearance. In both cases, he makes demands on her, and on her loyalty. She has to embrace this being as her life partner, and submit to the fact that he isn’t going away.
So even when the woman does own the house, even when the man is very obviously an intruder from another realm, she’s still the one who’s wrong. She doesn’t have the right to ask him to leave, or even to expect him to leave. He belongs there at least as much as she does, and in fact she only is going to be allowed to stay there in peace if she accepts him as her one and only love.
(This is a recurring idea in Thomas Pynchon’s woman-centered novels, too. Think of the invisible presence of the late Pierce Inverarity in The Crying of Lot 49, and the eventual return of Maxine’s husband to her divorcée’s apartment in Bleeding Edge, as well as her sense that her dead lover’s spirit still inhabits the Deep Web. See also Last Year at Marienbad, where the weight of evidence that the two protagonists really do have a past relationship, and that—in the view of the film—the man really does have a claim on the woman, is built up steadily and relentlessly.)
The writer-protagonist of Ruby Sparks has to do nothing along those lines. His home-invader makes no demands on him that he can’t evade, by harming her physically if he likes. She is not there to force him to make a connection with her—entirely the opposite. She’s simply an intrusion into his life, an inappropriate one, whom he must expel if he’s to move on and grow.
Ruby at first appears to be a nutso home-invader, but she is happily oblivious. She arrives complete with a set of (false) memories about how the two of them met, and the life they’ve been sharing. This makes her seem obnoxious and borderline manipulative, as if she were making it up. After all, we the audience know the truth and know that her version cannot be true. At no point do we ever wonder whether she has as much right to be there as Calvin does. At no point are we ever asked to consider her as a real human being—on the contrary, we are shown, before her arrival, that Calvin set out to write a story about his perfect woman, that he did, and that she matched the story in every particular. We find it humorous that he proves his powers to his cooler brother by compelling Ruby to speak French without her knowing why.
Ruby Sparks, as portrayed in the film, is a woman (if she’s a woman) who pushes her way into a house where she’s not wanted, is manipulated by the man who owns it, and is manipulated into leaving when he’s done with her. It’s the story of a man who doles out bad treatment to a woman he has no real reason to respect, and after that is ready for a mature relationship with a real woman. What interests me at the moment, though, is how it looks from her perspective: entirely her perspective, meaning from the point of view where what she believes is true and she really does belong there. And unlike with Truly, Madly, Deeply, there is no possible perspective where she does belong. The house belongs to the man, and he doesn't believe he has a girlfriend, and therefore the woman must be an intruder. (This is hardly a modern innovation. Isabel Archer, in The Portrait of a Lady, has no house of her own, at least once she leaves Albany for Europe. Neither does Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch, nor Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice.)
The Lake House has a similar premise. But even there, where the male and female characters are almost equal, it is decisively the man’s house. He’s literally the architect and built it for his family. He is there first. The spirit in the house, the one that can’t be eradicated, is his. The woman is almost a person whom he imagines, a future client, a posterity for whose sake he works. She’s just living there, and she can long for him, but she can never have a human relationship with him.
And in Stranger than Fiction, although no one starts out trying to exploit anybody, it’s the woman novelist (played by Emma Thompson) who has to change, to work differently and less aggressively, to refuse to have a character in her book die, in order to allow a random man on the street (Will Ferrell) to live. In the course of the story, the man “mans up” and takes control of his life, but only through the challenge of confronting the apparent supernatural author of his life and telling her to be nicer to him.
Her is better, exactly to the extent that it’s explicit about the fact that Samantha is a lesser being (in the most obvious sense) than Theodore is, and gives a reason for that other than her femaleness, and to the extent that it never suggests she has less of a right to exist, merely because she doesn’t own the property she resides on. Still, it’s yet another example of a film where property is always ever owned by the man. The idea of a man being expelled from a house by a woman seems to be unthinkable.