Lars and the Real Girl

In my post on yin and yang heroes and heroines, I wondered what a yin heroine might look like today, as opposed to the sweetly smiling mom of the 50s who stayed at home and kept the house perfect for her husband and children (like the mother in Pleasantville).

One answer may be found in Lars and the Real Girl. Lars, played by Ryan Gosling, is a repressed, skittish fellow who cannot bear to be touched and avoids most social interaction entirely unless within the safe structures of work and church. He lives in the garage of the house he and his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) inherited from their father, despite repeated invitations from his brother and Gus’s wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) to move in and live with them.

We find out in time that the brothers’ mother died while giving birth to Lars, their father was profoundly depressed and withdrawn after that, and that Gus got out as soon as he could, leaving Lars alone with their father. Lars carries the baby blanket his mother knitted for him all the time.

Things take a turn for the worse when Karin becomes pregnant. Lars becomes even more withdrawn, although he expresses his concern for Karin by giving her the baby blanket to wear when she comes to his door on a winter day to ask him to dinner. (He becomes very anxious without it and soon goes to ask for it back.)

Then one day he appears at their back door and announces that he has a girlfriend that he met online and may he bring her to dinner. Gus and Karin are ecstatic . . . until they meet Bianca. For Bianca is a life-sized, realistic sex doll. As they sit open-mouthed, Lars fills them in on Bianca’s history as a missionary and nurse in South America, then asks if she can stay with them in the house; as good Christians, they cannot of course stay overnight together in Lars’s little garage apartment.

Gus tries to tell Lars that he’s delusional, but Lars doesn’t hear. Karin suggests that perhaps Bianca should have a check-up, to which Lars agrees, and they all go visit the wise local family doctor who also happens to be a trained psychotherapist. Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) tells Gus and Karin that “Bianca is here for a reason” and suggests that they play along with Lars’s delusion and see what happens. Gus is resistant, but in time he and Karin manage to get the people in their church and in fact most of the people in their small town to go along. When one church elder objects, tart Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty) takes him to task, pointing out all the foibles that they put up with in each other.

Bianca, of course, does nothing more than sit there and look beautiful. As the movie unfolds, however, she takes on life as everyone around her projects their own issues and feelings about women and men onto her. When Mrs. Gruner comes to take Bianca to a party on a night when Lars thought they were going to stay in and play Scrabble, he stages a fight with Bianca, because he expects a girlfriend to do what her boyfriend wants. Mrs. Gruner flares up and says “you sound just like my husband! Bianca is her own woman!” and then mutters to Bianca “big babies!”

In another scene, Lars tells Karin that no one cares about him, and Karin — who is pregnant after all, but also deeply concerned — flies off the handle and lists all the things people have done for him and Bianca, “because we love you! So don’t tell me no one cares!” and stomps off.

This is not the last fight Lars has with Bianca. Instead of the perfect – and perfectly passive – woman he thought she was at first, he starts to find that she can be difficult and obstinate. And she speaks up. “Stop yelling at me!” he shouts as he parks the car and jumps out in one scene, then stomps about for a bit before coming back to the car and asking if she’s calmed down yet. So Lars, who has managed to avoid much interaction with women all his life, finds himself not just interacting but in conflict with women because of Bianca . . . and it’s not so bad.

Then when he asks her to marry him, she “says” no. Some part of Lars knows that Bianca is not what he really wants.

Because of Bianca and his troubles with her, Lars starts to confide in his brother and Dagmar. Dagmar helps him to overcome his aversion to being touched and also gets him to reveal his fear that Karin will die in childbirth as his mother did. He also asks his brother “how do you know when you’re a man?” — a beautiful scene in which the older brother, at first hesitant, answers “Well, it’s not like you’re one thing or the other, okay? There’s still a kid inside but you grow up when you decide to do right, okay, and not what’s right for you, what’s right for everybody, even when it hurts. . . . Like, you know, like, you don’t jerk people around, you know, and you don’t cheat on your woman, and you take care of your family, you know, and you admit when you’re wrong, or you try to, anyways. That’s all I can think of, you know – it sound like it’s easy and for some reason it’s not.” Lars later repeats some of these words to the young woman at work that he is becoming attracted to, rehearsing out loud what it means to be a grown-up man.

Gus also apologizes for leaving Lars and their father. “He was just so sad . . . I never should have left you with him.”

Dagmar suggests on their first visit that Bianca might have a medical problem. She never says what it is, only that it “might” be serious. This allows Lars to kill Bianca off when he no longer needs her as the mirror in which he can reflect upon his own past and issues. After Bianca is buried in a full funeral, Lars asks the young woman from work if she would like to go for a walk, and they both smile shyly at each other.

We carry our own demons with us, looking for the perfect person to project them onto and then blame that person for them. Most people never do learn that what angers or upsets us — or attracts us — about another person is just a projection, a fantasy or delusion about who they are that says volumes about who we are. And until we realize what we are projecting onto other people, we will be controlled by it instead of in control of it. Lars and the Real Girl is an object lesson in how projection works, and how we might integrate back into ourselves those things we try to make others carry for us.

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