It shouldn’t be as wrenching as it is to see the unnamed automaton at the center of “Robot Dreams” separated from the dog that bought it, but after being buried under the sand for fun during a day at the beach, it becomes no laughing matter in Pablo Berger’s touching adaptation of Sara Varon’s graphic novel of the same name. Still, “Robot Dreams” is too joyous to be considered a tragedy, even as it documents the year following the unanticipated parting of ways when the beach the robot is stranded on closes its gates for the summer with no way for the dog to get in and the two who strike up a fast friendship are left to wonder what they’ll do without one another.
Although the story is set in a universe mercifully free of people with Dog living on the third floor of a walkup in New York’s East Village where neighbors include Chicken and Cat, “Robot Dreams” has a distinctly human touch, not the least of which can be seen in the small items in the dog’s apartment such as the Kim’s Video copy of “Wizard of Oz” that sits on the living room table. When a poster of Pierre Étaix’s “Yoyo” hovers above the dog’s couch, cinephiles will know what they’re in for when the comedy operates outside of the time in which it was made like that 1965 silent film did, yet has a such a strong sense of compassion and picks up on nostalgic details so smartly that it can’t help but feel as if it’s one’s lived experience.
It’s a testament to what Berger and his crew have pulled off that the thought of Dog replacing Robot by calling the same number from TV that it did to order the Amica 2000 in the first place after losing it doesn’t even cross one’s mind when Dog is so consumed with the loss to think of it himself, but theirs is a relationship worth mourning. In its initial sprint, “Robot Dreams” captures the loneliness of the big city where Dog can walk out onto the street where there’s a real feeling of community as an octopus plays on plastic buckets in the subway station or he frequents a tiger-run bakery below his building, but can’t help but feel alone once back home at night, leading to the informercial that gets him to pull out his credit card. The purchase looks like the best Dog has ever made upon assembly of Robot, which quickly adopts a New Yorker’s penchant for hopping turnstiles and giving the finger when warranted, but eventually tears the canine apart when it isn’t only Robot that seems so far away as the seasons pass before the beach reopens, but the entire notion of companionship.
When there truly are no words for what Dog and Robot go through, Berger doesn’t need them anyway, but does employ a spirited score from Alfonso de Vilallonga with a particularly shrewd use of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” continually rearranged throughout the film, to do plenty of the emotional heavy lifting and the film’s simple yet sophisticated aesthetic manages to convey all the different shades of color it needs to. “Robot Dreams” may lead with all the wonders of technology that have inspired the story on screen and the means to tell it, but it lingers and transcends all that with its knowledge of the mechanics of the heart.
“Robot Dreams” will screen at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21st at 2:15 pm at the Cinema Aurore.