When I was a graduate student, a friend of mine was given a gift of a stuffed toy rabbit. He gave this rabbit a name, an identity, took it on trips with him and his girlfriend and even accumulated some little stuffed companions for it. It was very amusing for the first year, and even the second and the third, but as time went on I began to find it childish, the rabbit lost its appeal to me as something humorous and instead I started to question why a grown man could form such an ongoing and permanent relationship with the object. The way he breathed life into this little creature extended beyond its limits as an entity of fun: I think, if it were taken or destroyed, part of him would also be lost.
Imagine this then on a different scale - you live across the way from your brother-in-law (Lars) and you are concerned that he is lonely. Then one day he knocks on your door (something he never does) and tells you he has met a woman who is a foreign missionary, and he wants to bring her to dinner. You and your partner wait excitedly for them to come to dinner later that evening so you can meet her, only to discover she is a Real Doll – an artificial life – an inanimate creation from a company of the same name.
Lars and the Real Girl is a tale of Lars (played by Ryan Gosling), a shy dysfunctional male who has problems forming relationships with people and buys a Real Doll – Bianca – much to the horror of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). Lars invents a whole fantasy life for his creation. Karin and Gus then try to deal with what they consider is a signal of Lars’ mental health issues – and convince him to take Bianca to see a medical doctor and psychiatrist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson). This ruse allows Dagmar to explore the reasons for his illness – which she diagnoses as delusional behavior.
It is Dagmar who then encourages Gus and Karin to go along with Lars’ fantasy that Bianca is a real person. As Dagmar unravels Lars’ delusion, we find that the biography Lars gives to Bianca is parallel to his personal biography, particularly the difficult issues of death and physical intimacy. As the film progresses we see Lars’ fantasy is more accepted by his community (church, work, friends), with Bianca becoming assimilated into the lives of others (she helps out at the hospital and church). The women in the town are curious, whilst the men are envious – ‘I wish I had a woman that couldn’t talk’ says one man to a group of his friends.
It is hard to think of a Real Doll as anything other than a sexual object. In fact that is their sole design and purpose: they come with fabricated vagina and breasts, and can be penetrated orally, anally and vaginally. Lars and the Real Girl’s writer, Nancy Oliver, has subverted this particular imagery by putting Bianca in a setting of a small-town, close-knit religious community and giving her an identity as a disabled missionary – in this way, Oliver has made a film in which more meaningful relationships with non-humans become possible. This is both the film’s weakness and strength. As a strength it allows us to suspend negative notions that circulate about relations between men and dolls (interestingly there is a certain degree of acceptability when women possess vibrators or dildos, yet men who want to possess inanimate objects for sexual gratification tend to illicit the ‘yuk factor’).
At times I found Lars’ fantasy disturbing as he is unselfconsciously engrossed in the illusion that Bianca is ‘Real’, though this fact is never properly established as the audience does not have a character that challenges Lars relationship with Bianca or her status as a ‘person’ except for a short angry outburst by Gus. Embedding Bianca in a community, even making her backstory that of a missionary, allows viewers to dispense with our more vulgar feelings of distaste about the subject, and to suspend our aversion to the idea of sex dolls. In this sense, the film destabilises our perceptions of what a legitimate relationship is – and who or what it can be with.
Oliver wanted to explore human relationships, asking ‘how many people do you know that can’t really operate with real people?’ Yet she does not go far enough in the plot. Herein lies the weakness of the film, firstly it is set in a community unlikely to exist – anywhere - and the acceptance of Lars and Bianca’s (non-sexual) relationship does not really delve into the more complicated issues of human loneliness, and feelings of despair, rejection, fulfilment or estrangement that emerge when men (or women) form relationships and have sex with things instead of with other ‘real’ people.
Overall the film explores a provocative theme of human relations with non-human objects, artifacts that are for sale from a cost of $6,000 (male, female and shemale dolls are available to buy). At times the film is slow-paced, set in a non-descript town, but what it lacks in action makes up for in characterisation and uncertainty about what will happen next. It is hard to believe that a love-story between a human and a doll could have any gravity – but by disabling the perceptions of the townsfolk, Oliver also disarms the viewer, discouraging is from making value judgements on the relationship. Whether people anthropomorphise rabbits or sex dolls, it shows us there are gaps in human relations that seemingly can be filled with inanimate beings – and that is the more complicated story to be explored.