Love with a living doll
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