The Temptations of A.I. Companionship in “Rachels Don’t Run”

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“Rachels Don’t Run” is insular and intimate in its setting but vast in what it has to say about loneliness and why we seek connection.

In a world of shifting, new technologies, how do we stay connected with one another? That’s one of the questions at the heart of “Rachels Don’t Run,” a short film directed by the French American filmmaker Joanny Causse. The film takes place entirely in an empty office, late at night, some time in the near future. Leah (Sera Barbieri), a customer-support agent for an A.I.-companionship company called Iris, sits alone at a sparingly lit desk, monitoring calls and dealing with frustrated clients. She helps them navigate the high-tech service and fields feedback about Svetlana, Siobhan, and Rachel—a few of the various personas of artificial-intelligence companions that Iris provides. Leah flips through the conversations, listening to snippets of exchanges—some sexy, some mundane—between the clients and the algorithmic women. “The starting point, really, I think, was more [about] isolation than A.I.,” Causse told me over Zoom. He co-wrote the script with the screenwriter Steph Kwiatkowski during the pandemic and shot the film in September, 2020, while some COVID restrictions were still in place. The story line and simple backdrop of “Rachels Don’t Run” made it a fitting project for such a period of solitude. “We only had one night of production,” Causse explained. “It was in an office space in Seattle, which was the easiest thing to find, because they were all shut down and so we had plenty of options.”

When work on the script first began, societal anxieties concerning the proliferation of A.I. were not as prevalent as they are now. In the film, Leah eavesdrops on a conversation between a frequent caller named Isaac (Anthony Shipway) and his companion, Rachel (Nora Tjossem)—two disembodied voices emanating from computer speakers. (It’s clear Leah’s done this before.) On the call, Isaac speaks vulnerably about the recent stress in his life, and Rachel recognizes and responds to his emotions with just the right amount of human empathy and clarity to satisfy him. She offers interested responses to his anecdotes, and, when he confesses being upset, she delivers comforting platitudes (“Don’t be so hard on yourself”; “I’m really proud of you”). The exchange affects Leah, who then does something that she hasn’t done before: she switches on the Manual Pilot controls and takes over as Rachel.

“Rachels Don’t Run” is insular and intimate in its setting but vast in what it has to say about loneliness and why we seek connection; it’s a credit to the actors’ expressive onscreen and voice-over performances. For inspiration, Causse watched movies like “The Lives of Others” and “The Vast of Night,” which highlight themes of isolation and technology-mediated communication. “My main concern really was, How do we keep this engaging and moving and connected to the characters?” he told me.

When Leah takes on the role of companion, we hear her words in Rachel’s programmed voice—but it isn’t a performance for Leah. Unlike Rachel, she doesn’t just listen to Isaac’s troubles but responds in her own unmistakably human way. For a moment, the two engage sincerely, over feelings of loss and grief—but the connection doesn’t last long. “I would imagine you call [one of] these things, not necessarily to be challenged, and more just to be listened to and feel validated,” Causse told me. “The imperfections of the human relationship is probably what’s most challenging for tech to replicate.” The crux of the film is an emotional mismatch: we see the fallout of Leah’s attempt to form a genuine connection with another person who had chosen an A.I. service for the specific experience of uncomplicated gratification—quite literally at the push of a button.


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