Love with a liv­ing doll

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

Lars and the Real Girl ( PG)

Lim­ited na­tional re­lease

GE­ORGE Bernard Shaw had a lot to do with it. So did the Greeks, whose leg­ends have it that Pyg­malion, king of Cyprus and a sculp­tor in his spare time, made a statue of a wo­man so beau­ti­ful that he fell in love with it. In so do­ing he pro­vided end­less in­spi­ra­tion for artists through the ages.

Ovid, the Ro­man poet, penned a ver­sion of the story, W. S. Gil­bert turned it into a com­edy ( Pyg­malion and Galatea ), and film­mak­ers weren’t far be­hind. We are all familiar with My Fair Lady .

Is it pos­si­ble to fall in love with an im­age of one’s own mak­ing? Hol­ly­wood has al­ways thought so, and I can think of many films about stat­ues and images ex­ert­ing a pow­er­ful, some­times fa­tal, in­flu­ence on their in­no­cent own­ers.

In Por­trait of Jen­nie , Joseph Cot­ten plays a pen­ni­less artist ob­sessed with a paint­ing of a dead girl, and the scenes in Ver­tigo when James Ste­wart gazes at a por­trait that re­minds him of his lost love are among the most haunt­ing in that mas­terly film.

Ver­tigo was about the ef­forts of its de­ranged hero to re- cre­ate the wo­man of his dreams by mould­ing an­other in her im­age, and re­mains the cin­ema’s most ad­mired study of fetishist ob­ses­sion. In real life, of course, such be­hav­iour is more likely to be seen as ev­i­dence of men­tal dis­or­der, an­other sub­ject close to Hol­ly­wood’s heart. In Lars and the Real Girl , di­rected by Aus­tralian- born film­maker Craig Gillespie from a script by Nancy Oliver, the two themes are com­bined. A study of delu­sional be­hav­iour be­comes a feel­good ro­man­tic fan­tasy.

It’s a brave lit­tle film, in many ways an ad­mirable one, though weak­ened in the end by too much cute­ness. Gillespie has built a ca­reer as a di­rec­tor of television com­mer­cials, and his first fea­ture, Mr Wood­cock , a com­edy with Billy Bob Thorn­ton, was shown briefly last year. One hopes that Lars and the Real Girl will fare bet­ter.

Lars ( Ryan Gosling) works in an of­fice in a small mid­west­ern town. Des­per­ately shy and in­se­cure, he lives in a garage be­hind the house oc­cu­pied by his elder brother Gus ( Paul Sch­nei­der) and his wife Karin ( Emily Mor­timer). Lars rarely ven­tures out ex­cept to go to church on Sun­days, de­spite the best ef­forts of Gus and Karin to in­tro­duce him to new friends. So when, one day, he knocks on his brother’s door and of­fers to in­tro­duce him to his new friend Bianca, Gus and Karin are over­joyed.

At this point the film takes a strange turn. In the Pyg­malion story and its many vari­ants the pro­tag­o­nist is in love with an ob­ject of his own mak­ing that may be a work of art. But in Lars & the Real Girl , re­al­ity is more sor­did and ba­nal.

Bianca is a life- sized sil­i­con sex doll or­dered on the in­ter­net and de­liv­ered to Lars in a wooden crate. She has a small, pretty face and a slen­der frame, but seems oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able. We gather that the RealGirl web­site has a lim­ited num­ber of shapes and sizes from which cus­tomers can choose, and Bianca, pre­sum­ably, has been fash­ioned from stan­dard com­po­nents.

But her back­ground and per­son­al­ity are sup­plied by Lars him­self. Bianca, he ex­plains, is a re­li­gious girl, half- Dan­ish, half- Brazil­ian, raised by nuns as a mis­sion­ary and mak­ing a sab­bat­i­cal tour to broaden her ex­pe­ri­ence of the world. How un­for­tu­nate that this rest­less and good- hearted girl should be con­fined to a wheel­chair, her un­ex­plained dis­abil­ity im­pos­ing the same so­cial con­straints as those en­dured by Lars through his patho­log­i­cal shy­ness.

Can this ill- matched pair make a happy cou­ple? And how will Bianca be re­ceived and treated in this small, in­su­lar com­mu­nity? With ideas as bizarre and dark as th­ese, one dearly wants the film to suc­ceed. Lars is de­voted to his girl, ad­dress­ing her softly in mat­ter- of- fact tones and at­tend­ing to all her needs. But our ini­tial sym­pa­thies are with Gus and Karin.

Karin’s nat­u­ral kind­ness is enough to over­come her ini­tial shock. But Gus, rep­re­sent­ing the cruel world of prej­u­dice and scep­ti­cism, is con­vinced his brother is in­sane. Even­tu­ally Lars is per­suaded to con­sult a sym­pa­thetic lo­cal doc­tor ( Pa­tri­cia Clark­son), who ad­vises ev­ery- one to play along with his delu­sion. The film treads a cau­tious path be­tween gim­mickry and gen­uine depth and orig­i­nal­ity.

The mood is so del­i­cately poised ( at least in the early scenes) that I found my­self con­stantly anx­ious lest some fail­ure of nerve or nar­ra­tive mis­cal­cu­la­tion dis­turb it.

It would have been a mis­take, for ex­am­ple, to have made Bianca too beau­ti­ful or life­like. She re­mains, self- ev­i­dently, a doll, with a look of such for­lorn meek­ness and ar­ti­fi­cial­ity that we marvel at Lars’s ca­pac­ity to de­ceive him­self. But that, no doubt, is the point.

When the cam­era dwells in­tently on those still, waxen fea­tures, when Lars gazes lov­ingly into those un­re­spon­sive eyes, the temp­ta­tion to im­part some mag­i­cal flicker of life to Bianca — even as a re­flec­tion of Lars’s imag­i­na­tion — must have been strong. To have done so, of course, would have de­stroyed the mood of the film and much of its dra­matic in­tegrity.

In the event, we are al­lowed to share the re­al­ity of Lars’s ex­pe­ri­ence and re­joice in his de­liv­er­ance, the man­ner of which is won­der­fully strange and mov­ing.

Gosling has the dif­fi­cult task of mak­ing his emo­tion­ally re­tarded char­ac­ter in­ter­est­ing. It is a shrewd per­for­mance, but I doubt if it quite suc­ceeds. In­evitably Lars is over­shad­owed by the warmth and vi­tal­ity of those around him: Dr Ber­man, whose good­ness and wis­dom are beau­ti­fully re­alised in Clark­son’s per­for­mance, and Margo, the gauche but sweet- na­tured of­fice col­league ( Kelli Gar­ner) who senses in Lars a kin­dred spirit and al­lows her­self to love him.

The kindly towns­folk who ac­cept Bianca’s pres­ence are en­dear­ingly rep­re­sented by Mrs Gruner ( Nancy Beatty), who takes Bianca out for drives in her car and, to Lars’s jeal­ous dis­plea­sure, in­tro­duces her to her wider cir­cle.

But if Gosling’s per­for­mance seems un­der­pow­ered and overly re­strained, the film as a whole isn’t. In the end it opts for overkill and sen­ti­men­tal­ity, and some­times the story is too nice for words.

When Bianca starts go­ing to church, help­ing out at the lo­cal day- care cen­tre, modelling in a dress shop, even sit­ting on the school board, we won­der how any com­mu­nity can be so bless­edly free of big­ots, killjoys and other dis­rup­tive el­e­ments.

The best parts of the film are as­ton­ish­ing, and I think all of it would have been more pow­er­ful and af­fect­ing if it had stayed closer to the re­al­i­ties of Lars’s suf­fer­ing in­stead of al­low­ing us to share his com­fort­ing il­lu­sions. And there’s more than a hint of Frank Capra in its facile cel­e­bra­tion of small- town Amer­i­can virtue. Pain and psy­chosis are hard re­al­i­ties to make lov­able.

Good, clean fun: Ryan Gosling with his friend in Lars and the Real Girl

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