October 05, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

Lars is a loner. He spends his time living in his brother's garage, somewhere in the mid-West of the United States- somewhere no doubt with a Scandinavian heritage. He is encouraged by his brother and his sister in law to engage socially- but Lars refuses to. In the end, in a moment of desperation Lars orders a sex doll off the internet, called Bianca, and tells everyone that she is his girlfriend, come from abroad (she is half Brazilian, half Danish). His family, worried about him, take Bianca and him to the doctors (supposedly to make sure that Bianca has settled in alright but really to find out about Lars) the doctor tells them to go along with Lars's delusion as there is something that through it he needs to conquer. They do and the story of the film revolves around the way that Lars's delusory girlfriend is accepted by the local town and also with the growth of Lars himself through the experience of having this doll around.

There is something deeply perverse about this. It is like something out of Edgar Allan Poe in the sense that we are seeing a human being express strong physical attachment to a plastic sex doll. The film tries to cloak this in a sentimental small town piety- 'she was a teacher, she was a lesson in courage and Bianca loved us all especially Lars': well its true, until you recognise that she was a plastic doll and not a real human being. Twist and turn the tale it gets more complicated- we never quite see inside of Lars, we never see inside his head to what is driving him into his relationship with Bianca. He cannot cope with a normal woman of flesh and blood for some reason which is never explained- and the story takes as its focus the externality of Lars's character. Ryan Gosling plays him with a faint amused smile but without any introspection and this lack of psychological depth creates the atmosphere of the film: it makes the dark places of Lars's mind light.

If the film is not about psychology, what is it about? In part it is about community and compassion- it has a Capraesque tone running through it. This small town come together to enable one of them to live with his delusion and enable him to grow through it. In a sense that has to be lauded- but in a sense the tale is too optimistic. Because we never get inside Lars's head we never really understand what the nature of the illness that he suffers from is and so whether to see this town's actions as the kindness of friends to someone who cannot face, for a moment, real life or an abdication of responsibility. Are they aiding someone or are they in going along with the delusion merely helping a madman to make a fool of himself? I'm not sure that despite the happy ending and the medical piety of the local doctor, that question can ever be answered without a much more thorough examination of what and who Lars is.

What sustains the film are the performances. Emily Mortimer does brilliantly at playing the sister in law- she has just the right amount of weak and perhaps even vain strength. Gosling does a reasonable job- though the problems with Lars's character- in a sense he is a doll as much as Bianca is create problems that the actor cannot get over. Both Paul Schneider playing Lars's brother and Kelli Garner his love interest, Margo, do well: I liked Mr Schneider's ability to get the emotionless man who almost breaks down with the force of what is happening around him. The film is in reality divided into three parts- the first of which is the most satisfying and looks at the way that Mortimer and Schneider's characters react to Lars's new girlfriend and partly because of both of their performances and partly because the material is much more realistic that is the most successful part of the film.

The point on which the film stands or falls though is whether you believe in Lars. I've said that Lars is effectively a blank- we are given no kind of insight into what kind of condition he has- apart from some general guilt about pregnancy and a fear of being touched. I was left with questions about Lars rather than answers and questions about the nature of male relationships with women. Perhaps this is naive of me but I don't see a sex doll as a progression between loneliness and a relationship- rather I see it as a diversion because the hard thing in the relationship is coping with another person. Perhaps the film makers are right and imagine Lars taking Bianca's reality seriously and that realisation pushing him towards a relationship but I struggled with it as a concept. I also struggled with the idea that Margo would wait so long for Lars to fall out of love with a sex doll; it just seemed implausible to me.

I'm sure that there are lots of people who see this movie as a sweet reaffirmation of the value of community and the way that love is something that you have to learn to be an adult, and maybe its a reflection on me rather than the film that I couldn't. But I couldn't see it like that- I thought it was implausible. The last reason I think that the film is implausible is because it doesn't recognise that much of the problem of loneliness is not self inflicted or self induced. It dodges the question about loneliness- which is not so much that people do not desire love- but that others do not love them (perhaps that reveals a personal fear or perception of life). Lars ends the story walking into the distance with Margo- that is the most implausible cut of all.


Eralda LT said...

I agree with you that the ending and its overall optimism is implausible and just plain unrealistic. Honestly, I felt that Lars was a very complex character precisely because he was a blank canvas, his condition was unspecified, but the emotive aspect of his character is what made him fuller.

As far as the sex doll, it's interesting that a concept that is supposed to do away with real human interaction is subverted to the point that it becomes a source of healing, so to speak, and that not because he acts upon the doll (I did not perceive any such thing, though I may be wrong).

Gracchi said...

Eralda- interesting comment. I think the blank canvass of Lars allows you to project the kind of condition you want to upon him. In a sense its the frustration of the film that you start with a blank canvass but never probe beneath it. But you are right it may indeed lead you to the other perception- that Lars is essentially unfilmable which is why the director chose not to film him.

The sex doll is interesting- he does kiss it at one point. I'm pretty sure like you that he does nothing to it and that its an instrument of healing. But what I'm not sure about is the degree to which it really is a bridge to a real live girlfriend. His relations with it I think are an interesting and unresolved subject in the film partly because it is a relationship between a doll and a blank.

Eralda LT said...

Your response caused my wheels to involuntarily spin, so here are two more thoughts to chew on:

First, in response to Lars being "unfilmable," and his being a blank canvas where the viewer (or reader) projects the condition she wants upon Lars: If this can be classified as a postmodern movie (certain aspects of it have postmodern elements, even though we can never fully define postmodernism), then the reader (or viewer) is constantly being invited to participate in the story through his projections. The reader/viewer becomes a participant, a part-writer (or director), he becomes complicit in the story and affects its outcome.

Second, what do Lars and the sex doll have in common? I think, perhaps, that they are both "bodies" that are acted upon by others. She is acted upon sexually, and he is acted upon emotionally. I realize this is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. Why was she safe for Lars? She never overwhelmed or violated him emotionally, and I realize that is a bit reductive, but it makes sense in light of the notion of "the violence acted upon the body."

Gracchi said...

Eralda- that is a perceptive comment and its taken me a while to respond because I've been trying to get my head round the implications.

Firstly the postmodern film- yes I can see where that comes from in the sense that you say, I suppose its an attack on the idea that a story within a film can show us the collection of subjectivities. In a sense its a direct attack on the psychological model of film making in which I can take a birds eye view of others' psyches. I wonder what implications that has for what both of us do- ie explore a film through the inner motivations of its characters.

Secondly and subsidiary to that- is this a critique of the idea that a film has to have characters to function or that characters properly exist- could one of the film's points be that character itself is a false construction.

Thirdly your second point I really like. There is something to that- I was thinking as soon as I read that about the way that Lars interacts with Emily Mortimer's character who keeps on violently forcing him into the family- in a sense the doll is similar- and in a sense she is a shield which stops either us or his family learning more about Lars.

Trying to marry that with the end of the film is not easy though.

Mike said...

The point isn't that he develops feelings for the plastic girl - of course that would be ridiculous.

The point is that even though he was shutting out the world, he really was lonely and desperate to find a way to connect. Whatever his pain or problem was, it prevented him from connecting with people the way a normal person does on their own.

The problem of his inability to connect, combined with his desperate desire to connect, is what created his dillusion and illnes.

Do you get it? Like, he couldn't connect on his own. BUT with a girlfriend to tote around, he suddenly has perfect excuses to talk and interact with everyone in order to take care of her, show her around, do things with her, talk about her, etc etc without making himself as vulnerable. I know it doesn't seem normal, but keep in mind when people lack very basic social skills, they make up for it in very odd ways.

Mike said...

Oh sorry one more thing... the ending is unrealistic only in that the blond girl is still interested in him after his dillusion. By going through the process of burying the doll, Lars is symbolically letting go of his need to have a dillusion in order to interact with real people. Even though he is technically mourning her death, he is really moving on from his former anti-social (or whatever) problems, and when he asks the blond to go for a walk, its almost like we're seeing the first glimpse of Lars as a functioning/participating member of society/life/etc.

The movie has an overall tone of "we all understand your problem and love you anyways and want you to be better, rather than judge you", so maybe thats why the blond seems to still be interested in Lars by the end of the film. Then again, maybe she just wants to be his friend.... then again in a small town, you don't have a lot of other options and you tend to be much more forgiving of someone's shortcomings, maybe thats why hahahaha.