I love films that don’t spell everything out for me. I love being able to come to my own conclusions, and think about what conclusions the director wanted me to come to. Lars and the Real Girl is a film that does just that. It assumes its audience is a thinking audience and leaves sentences half said and questions unanswered.
I had never heard of this film until a few weeks ago when it was advertised for viewing at a local film club. I think it is relatively unknown so I will briefly describe the story line and don’t worry I won’t give any spoilers.
Lars lives in a converted garage annex of a bigger house where his brother and sister-in-law live. They are expecting their first child. Lars is quiet to the point of being a recluse and his family are worried about his inability to socialise or have friends. Karen- Lars’ sister-in-law is frustrated with always trying to invite him round to dinner and he never comes until one day he turns up asking if he can bring a girl round to meet them. She is in a wheelchair, he says, and she doesn’t speak much English, but he really wants them to get to know her and accept her. Their delight turns to horror when he arrives with a life size female doll and introduces her as Bianca. Karen cleverly suggests that Bianca sees a doctor just to check she is all fine after her long travels. The doctor is also a psychiatrist and suggests that Lars is experiencing a delusion, but one that must be played through for Lars to be able to move forwards.
The film is light-hearted, funny and poignant all at the same time. I think that one of the main things this film deals with is reality. Initially Lars’ brother Gus struggles to go along with the delusion. Bianca is not real, he says. The doctor disagrees; Bianca is sitting out there right now. The question they have just raised is what is real? Gus, and us as the audience, look at Bianca and say she’s not ‘real’. But she exists, she can be touched, she interacts with the world (albeit passively). That doesn’t make her real, we say. Lars believes she is real; more than that, she IS real to Lars. The doctor’s point is that that is enough to make her real.
The concept of what is real is intertwined with what is acceptable in the film. Two of Lars’ work colleagues have toys at their desks. This is not uncommon for offices. Kurt has some action figures, and Margo has a little teddy bear. The two of them don’t get on very well and one day Margo hides Kurt’s figurines. Kurt is furious: “Listen up, Margo, those action figures are very important to me. They’re worth a lot of money. And if I don’t see every damned one back on my desk pretty soon, then, you can tell your teddy to watch his back.” Kurt then takes the squabble too far for Margo when she finds her teddy bear hanging with a noose around his neck.
I will say that sociably the way they treat their toys is perhaps considered odd, but when it comes down to it, it is much more acceptable than Lars’ doll girlfriend. Why though? Are there enough difference between Margo’s tears at finding her hung teddy bear and the way Lars treats Bianca as a real person? One is socially more acceptable than the other, but are they any more real than the other?
Small children often project what is real for them onto something like a teddy bear, or an imaginary friend. I’m no psychiatrist, but I think this is part of learning to deal with things as an autonomous being. Things that are painful or difficult are often easier to process if they are happening to someone else. By talking about the things that Bianca has been through in her life, (which of course are the same as the things that Lars has experienced) he is able to deal with them and process them in a way he has clearly been unable to before.
As adults we learn that imaginary friends are not acceptable, and we probably develop other ways of dealing with life. But that doesn’t stop us from making things that are not ‘real’ become real. We tell stories, we write stories, we have fantasies, we imagine conversations, interactions, events. As a society we deal with a lot of life through popular media and culture. It is no coincidence that soap operas often reflect events going on in the news. Films often ask questions, and depending on how close they are to Hollywood, give answers about the current state of affairs. To take just one excellent example, Brassed Off and The Full Monty were released just 10 years after most of the pits had been closed across the north of England. A time when a whole generation of workers were struggling to redefine themselves and cope with their new reality.
I won’t give away the ending of Lars and the Real Girl, but I will say that it is beautiful, touching and intelligent. Lars comes a long way through the film. The doctor says at one point that “what we call mental illness isn’t always just an illness… it can be a way to work something out.” I could so easily delve into all the reasons why I think Lars is Autistic, but I might never stop talking if I do. However, it is very common, and well known, that the concept of reality is incredibly difficult to grasp for people with Autism. How do you separate, define and identify what is real from what exists but wouldn’t be called real, and what is labelled as fantasy. This film combines all of those things in ways that we all experience and value but with a blurring of the boundaries that we find a little bit uncomfortable.
But I like being made to feel uncomfortable. It makes me think.