Deviating a bit from his role as suave, blue-collar Southernern, Noah Calhoun, in the The Notebook, Ryan Gosling strips off his masculine confidence to play agoraphobic Lars in one of his lesser known works, Craig Gillespie’s 2007 film, Lars and The Real Girl. Situated in a rural Midwestern town, Lars lives in sad mediocrity, working a nameless white collar job, and living in the garage of his childhood home. He’s a loner and a schizoid, whose face contorts and cringes whenever confronted with social interaction. His fear of people is so great that his brother and sister-in-law, living in the adjacent house, have to literally corner him into accepting their invitation to dinner. While coworkers, family, and fellow churchgoers are always eager to show kindness to Lars, it’s clear that their affection is unwanted.
All of this changes when Bianca is introduced to Lars’ life. Half-Brazilian, half-Danish, a missionary on sabbatical, taking a break from the other nuns, beautifully figured, but disabled and confined to a wheelchair, Bianca arrives on the scene, creating an immediate transformation in Lars’ personality. Typically avoiding eye contact, Lars can return a person’s gaze. Typically morose, Lars is open to conversation. However, there’s one catch. Bianca is an online-ordered, anatomically accurate sex doll.
The first to make Bianca’s acquaintance is Gus (Paul Schneider) and Karin (Emily Mortimer), the brother and sister-in-law. As would be expected, their reaction is speechless shock. But in an effort to not upset Lars, Karin plays along and suggests that Bianca go to their family practitioner/psychologist, Dagmar Bernan (Patricia Clarkson), for a checkup. Here, Dagmar “discovers” that Bianca has low blood pressure, and suggests that she and Lars come in once a week to undergo tests. Coordinated with Gus and Karin, Dagmar uses this guise to subtly probe into the thoughts of Lars.
The first piece of advice Dagmar has for Gus and Karin is to play the game. If Lars imagines Bianca to be real, then she is. So for the sake of preserving his already fragile emotions, Gus and Karin communicate to all residents of their town that Bianca is a real person, and must be treated as such. And here we see the heartfelt charm of salt-of-the-earth Middle America. Initially, the town has reactions ranging from confusion, to curiosity, to outright disgust. Even Lars’ own brother insults him to others, calling him sick and deluded. But as one woman highlights at a church meeting, everyone has their idiosyncrasies. She points out one individual whose cousin like to puts dresses on cats. And another one whose nephew gave away all his money to a UFO club. And another whose first wife was a klepto. In small town America, where everyone gets an intimate view of everyone else’s behavior, you have to overlook a person’s eccentricities in order for folks to live together harmoniously.
And so, Bianca is suddenly given agency and an identity by the town. Now she’s hanging out with the other women, she’s having her hair worked on, she’s volunteering at the hospital, she’s reading books to children at the local school–albeit audiobooks. During one scene, she goes to a work party of Lars, where other women admire her beautiful hair with a tinge of envy. She becomes so popular with everyone that a schedule hanging on the refrigerator has to tell Lars where she is every day of the week.
Keep in mind that all of this is still foregrounded by an emotionally insecure Lars. During the therapy sessions, Dagmar slowly discovers that Lars has a severe fear of intimacy, to the degree that hugging is physically painful for him. When she touches her hand to his bare arm and cheek, Lars turns away, his facial muscles twisting and warping in pain. But as these sessions continue, as Dagmar helps familiarize Lars to physical touch, thereby alleviating his root fear of other people, Lars subconsciously undergoes an evolution that’s outwardly projected into his relationship with Bianca. For example, Lars proposes to Bianca but is inexplicably rejected. Then towards the latter part of the movie, Bianca becomes severely sick. And after being rushed to the hospital by ambulance, Bianca suddenly dies. The final scene shows the funeral service and burial of Bianca in the same cemetery where Lars’ parents reside. Some of the attendees are shown crying, revealing the importance of Bianca not just to Lars, but the town at whole. But more importantly, the death of Bianca occurs in conjunction with the death of Lars’ social phobias. At the very end, when Lars is standing aside Margo (Kelli Garner), the shy and extremely lonely coworker who had been eyeing Lars throughout the film, he takes the initiative in offering to take a walk with her. And thus, the martyrdom of Bianca saved Lars.
Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, is a kindred spirit to the core of Lars, with both films highlighting the role of non-human relationships serving a therapeutic purpose. Her’s protagonist, Theodore Twombly, becomes mired in depression after a separation with his wife, and turns to an artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), for asylum. In Samantha, he recaptures the connections he had cauterized, and elevates his relationship to both an intensely emotional and even sexual level–ironically, Lars remains platonic with his “sex” doll, citing Bianca’s religious considerations. But ultimately Theodore becomes severed from Samantha, when she admits romances with hundreds upon thousands of other artificial intelligences, thereby reopening those scars of separation in Theodore. However, this time, rather than return to the same state of melancholy that consumed him with his first breakup, Theodore uses this moment to make a conscious decision about making peace with his divorce. The film ends with this same promise of hope.
Relationships are played out in every romance novel and film with little differentiation. They use the same dime-a-dozen template with different actors and different settings. We watch the archetypal cycle, and we the audience feel a kinship to the characters, because we all have the same start and finish lines, from initial meeting with the other person, to paired bliss. But we forget that there are those who are a bit handicapped and underprivileged, whether through innate inabilities, phobias, or trauma. And because their starting line is a little behind us, and because every romance is positioned to be forward-looking, we overlook these others. Lars and Her reminds us about these other people, people who begin a little behind the rest, who need crutches before they can walk. But what’s especially beautiful about these the characters in these films is that, not only do they find support through community, friends, and family, they also don’t become dependent on the crutches, but make the deliberate decision to use them until no longer needed. There’s no shame in relying on unconventional means to buttress our anxieties or fears, so long as use them as an impetus for self-improvement. This is the truth that redeems what would otherwise seem like a perverted romance–a man’s love of a silicone love doll–turning it into an aspirational story about overcoming severe anxieties.
-Nathan Le Master, June 2016