By now most cinephiles are intimately familiar with the work of both Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. After years of toiling away on comedy programs of varying quality, Kaufman finally had a hit with Being John Malkovich, the first screenplay of his to be turned into a movie. Now an Oscar nominated screenwriter, Kaufman was finally able to get the ball rolling on other projects. The first post-Malkovich project would be Kaufman’s script for Human Nature, a darkly comic tale about the discovery of man raised in nature. Originally offered to Spike Jonze, director of Malkovich, who opted to produce the film, and suggested French-born director Michel Gondry, who, like Jonze, had been directing inventive music videos before feature films.
Human Nature is very much a Charlie Kaufman movie. On the first viewing, Human Nature feels chaotic, like one random idea after another. But with successive viewings, the film is meticulously constructed, every piece of information necessary. Kaufman balances his picture with humorous glimpses into humanity and a dark, caustic vision of humanity and society. The inventive visuals typically associated with Gondry aren’t really present. It’s the closest to a conventional film that Gondry has ever made, which is saying something because this film is still decidedly unconventional.
The film opens with each of the 3 main characters giving their version of the events. One testifying before congress, one being interrogated by the police, and the other giving their side of events in the confines of the afterlife. There’s Lila (Patricia Arquette) who at young age began to grow hair over her body. Tired of being gawked at, Lila leaves civilization and proceeds to live in nature. There she becomes a best-selling nature author with her book Fuck Humanity. Though she enjoys nature and doesn’t care much for society, her biological urges guide her back to society. Back in civilization, she receives electrolysis to remove her hair, and her electrolysis technician sets her up with Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins). An uptight and repressed scientist who retains his virginity well into his 30s, Dr. Bronfman has dedicated his life to teaching table manners to lab rats. One day on a nature hike, the couple discovers a man who thinks himself an ape (Rhys Ifans). After he’s accidentally knocked unconscious, Dr. Bronfman takes him back to his lab where he and his lab assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) name him Puff, and proceed to teach him etiquette through shock therapy. Though Puff shows great promise in learning and retaining information, his animal instincts get the best of him. But they’re also getting the best of everyone else around him.
Human Nature is explicitly about how we’re all products of our own environment. Through flashbacks, we see the psychological hang ups being placed into the psyche of Dr. Bronfman. These hang ups give Dr. Bronfman his own vision of what’s proper and not. He tries tirelessly to impose his hang ups on both Puff and Lila. When the study and training of Puff turns into a massive success, making him the toast of the intelligentsia, Dr. Bronfman forgoes his repressed notions of what’s proper. Suddenly he’s driven by lust and greed, leaving Lila for Gabrielle. Conversely, Puff is able to set aside his animal instincts for show, basically to prop up Dr. Bronfman’s ego, but when left to his own devices he gives into his hedonistic urges, splurging on booze and prostitutes. Meanwhile, all of the events leave Lila reigniting her contempt for society. She sees Puff as a pure being, unburdened by the demands of an uncaring society. As hard as all of these flawed characters try, they are incapable of overcoming the hardwired instincts of the human brain.
There are no heroes or villains in Human Nature, only flawed people acting in what they believe is their own best interest. Whether ego, lust, jealousy, or anger, no amount of repression can truly purge these feelings from us – they’re all a part of our animalistic side. When viewed from afar, it can be funny, depressing, or terrifying. With Human Nature, Kaufman and Gondry have made a film that encapsulates all of that and more.