An Initiation into Intimacy, a Fear of the Feminine: Lars and the Real Girl
I spent a while hung up on, and unsure about what photo to use as the cover-shot for this post. I worry, already, that the film itself is too easily written off by people - assumed to be nothing more than a stunt premise, an attempt to mine sex-doll shenanigans for laughs, or a more heartless and shallow Peter Farrelly style flick, but without the double-flipped and reversed dark irony he imbues his scripts with. I was worried, similarly, that the wrong photo would give people too-easy an out; that a photo like the one I chose fails, entirely, to capture the richness, nuance, and heart of the film, and spent some time searching for a photo that captured, more accurately, that which I find most endearing about it. I decided in the end - partly because I couldn't find any high quality jpegs of other moments from the movie, and also because I thought that such a film might actually be most appropriately celebrated in all of it's "I don't care if this is for you" glory and that the picture of a grinning Lars next to his plastic pal might actually be just what the post called for. I'm glad you decided to give Lars a shot.
What follows is a two part unpacking of what makes Lars and the Real Girl the gem that it is - first, a brief summary of the major plot points of the film (SPOILERS AHEAD - act accordingly!), and then brief analysis of what I think makes it work as well as it does. And it does.
Lars and the Real Girl by Nancy Oliver
First, Oliver introduces us to Lars, establishing how painfully shy he is, even around his brother Gus and Gus’s wife, Karin, who is pregnant. It is established how sensitive (almost excruciatingly so) and caring he is, perpetually concerned with Karin’s well-being and wanting to do everything possible to ensure that she remains healthy and that the pregnancy goes smoothly. It is also established how concerned Karin is for Lars, worried that there might be something wrong with him because of his incomparable reclusiveness. Next, we meet Margo – first at church and then at work – who clearly has eyes for Lars, despite Lars’ awkward rebuffs (or what seem to be rebuffs, at this point) of her advances. At church we hear the preacher’s admonition to the congregates, “love one another. That is God’s one true law. ‘Love one another,’ is God in action;” Lars, however, isn’t listening and has busied himself playing with the toys of the six-year old boy across from him – perfectly appropriate, literally and metaphorically, for the journey Lars will soon undertake. At work, Lars’ coworker Kurt shows off some sex dolls he’s been checking out online and six weeks later, a gigantic package arrives on Lars’ doorstep and he shows up at Gus and Karin’s door, suddenly eager to hang out, which is a first, and – even more of a first – announcing that he’ll be bringing a guest. Cut to Lars on their couch, sitting with Bianca, a plastic bikini model in fishnets. After being prodded by Gus and Karin with the false suggestion that it might be good for Bianca see a doctor “after all of her traveling,” (which, of course, is their way of getting him to see a psychologist) Lars agrees to bring Bianca in to see a doctor. The second act is, essentially, a journey of Lars’ confronting his fear of human contact, during which Bianca’s presence serves to facilitate more integration with the community and during which Lars, slowly but surely, comes further and further out of his shell. His ultimate victory is his surrendering of Bianca so that he might begin a relationship with Margo.
The first thing I’ll make note of, in terms of what makes the story work - despite my intention to favor technical observations over sentimental ones, is the compassion Oliver brings to this story. It is clear that she wrote the script sitting squarely in Lars’ corner with a vested interest in his evolution and without a trace of assumed superiority over a character and story that would be easy to poke fun at. Next, Oliver sets her world up a number of mysteries, questions and thematic lines that are all very compelling. Regardless of whether the story is properly interpreted as a metaphor for men’s relationship with intimacy – or fear thereof, or as a metaphor for a more universal fear of intimacy and connection (regardless of gender) for fear of love’s power to wound and traumatize, as a reader/viewer I am immediately hooked by the concrete dilemma Gus and Karin find themselves in: “Lars is talking to a doll and what do we do about it, in a world that is neither open to, nor accepting of, such profound eccentricities?” Oliver also wrote a fantastic mentor/mentee relationship between Lars and Dr. Dagmar, who sees the side of the story that Gus and Karin don’t: Lars bringing Bianca into being might actually be – for Lars – a step in the right direction, a courageous step forward for him and his way of giving love and life a fighting chance. As Dagmar puts it, “Bianca’s in town for a reason.” The other thing Oliver does a great job setting in motion is the world’s insistence – entirely personified by feminine invitation – that Lars come out to play. Karin and Margo are both unperturbed by Lars’ resistance to their various requests and it is actually Karin’s approval, more than Gus’s, that Lars seeks when he brings Bianca for dinner for the first time. Dagmar’s insistence, also, is as firm as it is warm; the phrase ‘ruthless compassion’ comes to mind. Lastly, Oliver’s stage directions give life to – and make relatable – a character that could easily be (and most likely, often is) easily dismissible as being too weird. There’s a moment early in the film where Lars is handed a flower by an elderly woman at church and told, “give this to someone nice.” In the subsequent interaction you get the full picture of Lars’ struggle through one bit of scripted behavior. He sees Margo and with knee-jerk reactivity hurls the flower into the bushes, then – realizing his mistake – goes to retrieve the flower, realizes it’s too late, then freezes – a deer in Margo’s headlights. In one mannerism-fueled social fumble, we see both the desperation to reach out and the equal measured terror of making contact. We also see, in this moment, what a perfect match Margo poses, possessing of the courage thus far absent in Lars, in tandem with her empathic knowing of the fear racking Lars’ being.
To summarize, Oliver’s story works because it revolves around an inherently compelling dilemma - one that, despite the unique eccentricity of her protagonist, has at it’s core a great universal relatability: the fear of risking connection, and risking one’s feelings. The story works because Oliver refrains from judging any of her characters, even the ones who cast judgment on Lars; the story works because of the originality and subtlety with which Oliver enters into the moral question of the film, that of how we conceive of/define mental illness; the story works because of the internal conflicts we see in each character, and the philosophical reckonings required of each character in their relationship to Lars as he goes through his own reckonings and his own evolution. Lastly the story works because Oliver has grounded a potentially far-fetched character in an extremely earthy and believable world. The cold, the landscape, as well as the characters around Lars – especially the minor ones – are so true to their elements that Lars’ final surrender of Bianca occurs as an earned catharsis; the believability of the world makes us appreciate his triumph viscerally rather than conceptually; we feel his shift in our gut rather than with some strain of ethereal sentiment.