In the opening credits of Lars and the Real Girl, protagonist Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is pictured looking out of the window of his garage apartment, warming himself with a blanket that we later learn was knitted for him by his mother when she was pregnant with him. In this close-up of his face, the blanket covers his mouth, so the only indication of his state of mind is the expression of his eyes. The feeling is somber, intensified by the apparent cold temperature. In the frosty window pane is the reflection of the dark and cloudy sky. The film opens with the shot of a lone man, one we will soon learn is terrifyingly lonely, and with a cold feeling, mediated only by the soft, handmade blanket.
In a brief video put out by the Writer’s Guild Foundation, screenwriter Nancy Oliver comments that she is bored with the assumption that drama requires conflict and states that she is instead “interested in the play of tensions between people.” Quoted by reviewer Margy Rochlin in The New York Times 2007 review of the film Oliver says that she conceived of the premise of Lars and the Real Girl as a “what if” thing, like,
What if we didn’t treat our mentally ill people like animals? What if we brought kindness and compassion to the table?
Indeed, Oliver’s screenplay offers a new look at mental illness. When Lars develops a delusion that his blow-up doll, Bianca, is a real girlfriend, the town doctor, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) tells his brother and sister-in-law that Bianca has come to Lars to help him solve a problem and that she will stay as long as she is needed. Dagmar correctly understands the delusion as an aide in Lars’s development from an undifferentiated infantile self who cannot yet deal with the subjectivity of others to a fully differentiated, autonomous self who has the capacity to be in relationships with others. Instead of attempting to force Lars into the reality that his doll is just that–a doll–Dagmar encourages everyone in this small town to enter into the delusion in support of Lars. The film poignantly explores how a community can come together to help a traumatized individual heal.
A close reading of the film reveals that we are all somewhat like Lars in the way that we use objects–people, dolls, stuffed animals, and action heroes–to shore us up when we are under stress.
Winnicott’s transitional object shows up in the opening credits. It is Lars’s blanket. In his 1953 article, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena–A Study of the First Not-Me Possession,” Winnicott theorizes that this special object inhabits the
intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear, between oral erotism and true object-relationship…
Winnicott goes on to suggest that the transitional object functions to move the infant in his journey from a truly subjective stance to one in which he can experience both his own subjectivity and that which is outside of him–the objective world. In standing for the first object, the mother, who was not initially perceived as separate, the transitional object helps the infant to manage the terror associated with separation. Typically, the transitional object loses its emotional valence once the developing baby has navigated his way through the early pangs of separation from mother and can conceive of her (and himself) as separate beings.
However, because Lars’s mother died in childbirth, Lars remains stuck, unable to become a complete and autonomous individual, unable to separate from a mother whose only connection to him was a blanket. In the opening scene, he lends his blanket to his sister-in-law, the newly pregnant Karin (Emily Mortimer), who has come out in the cold to invite him to breakfast, suggesting that he may be on the verge of giving it up. Instead, however, he replaces the blanket with Bianca, who arrives soon after that opening scene.
While the adults in the film erroneously assume that Lars has purchased Bianca as a sex toy, in reality, Lars uses Bianca as a substitute mother. His need for a mother has been activated and intensified by his fear of losing Karin to death in childbirth, just as he lost his own mother.
In one scene, Lars brings Bianca to his childhood treehouse. The camera looks down at him, lying in the treehouse alone, and Bianca, on the ground below. She is not with him in the treehouse, as she might have been had she been his lover, but she is there. The scene is reminiscent of a baby in the cradle, with mother close by. In “The Capacity to Be Alone” (1958), Winnicott argues that
the ability to be truly alone has its basis the early experience of being alone in the presence of someone…when the ego immaturity is naturally balanced by ego-support from the mother.
Bianca is present but demands nothing of him, just as the good-enough mother provides for her infant, lends ego support, creates adequate holding but requires nothing in return. In this way, Bianca is (at least for a time) everything that Lars needs, as he projects onto her exactly what he wants. Indeed, Bianca, he says, loves children and is a nurse. Lars reports that “Bianca says that God made her to help people.” Who could ask for a better caretaker?
Before Bianca’s arrival, Lars was unable to make use of the people in his life for any pleasure at all. Karin repeatedly invited him for meals; if he absolutely couldn’t refuse her, he reluctantly sat with them, picking at his food. He was frightened and put off by any social interaction, even with his own family.
However, after Bianca’s arrival, he agrees to attend the receptionist Cindy’s (Karen Robinson) birthday party. In this group shot, he is pictured smiling and engaged with Bianca by his side. Shortly after this scene, he gets up to dance!
The scene represents a turning point in Lars’s development which is facilitated by a growing ability to play. Play allows him to connect with other people–with Cindy and the others at her party. It allows him to dance. To be able to play requires a flexibility and comfort with oneself that Lars lacked before his relationship with Bianca. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog, mothers are our first playmates. Lars missed out on a crucial developmental phase–the playful interactions with mother. And because his grieving brother and father were unable to fill in for his mother, Lars was left alone and never learned to play. As the others at the party “play” along with Lars’s delusion, Lars becomes freer. Although his dancing style is odd, the very fact that he can dance at all reflects the loosening up of his body, his movement toward playfulness.
Through an identification with Bianca and therapy with Dagmar, Lars begins to work through the trauma of the loss of both of his parents–his mother first in childbirth and his father soon after from a broken heart. In one scene in Dagmar’s office, Lars becomes increasingly agitated; Karin is nearing the end of her pregnancy. Dagmar tells him that the likelihood of Karin’s death in childbirth is minimal, but Lars’s experience is otherwise; he knows it is possible, and he knows how traumatic it is. He has become attached to Karin, and he cannot bear a repetition of the trauma that he has experienced, that he holds in his own body, but that he cannot consciously recall.
In this close-up shot, his fingers press into his eyes, suggesting that he cannot bear to see the danger he believes Karin to be facing. Dagmar bears witness to his terror, seeing it, holding it, and facilitating his ability to see it as well. Her capacity for profound empathy allows her to create what Winnicott would call a holding environment that allows for Lars’s growth.
As the story unfolds and the community members embrace Bianca, she becomes more than Lars’s projections. One evening, when Lars is expecting to play Scrabble with Bianca, he learns that she has other plans. Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty), one of the townspeople who has been most supportive of Lars and Bianca, admonishes Lars, saying, “Now you listen to me. Bianca has a life of her own.” This moment of separation angers Lars, who fights with Bianca for the first time, thus illustrating the painful but necessary hate that accompanies the acceptance of separate subjectivities and that Winnicott references in his work on mothers and infants. Lars can no longer control Bianca; he must stand on his own.
Separation is such an enormous challenge for all of us that transitional objects and magical thinking remain important throughout life, even after the initial transitional object loses its original meaning. Lars is able to give up Bianca once he becomes a man, but the need for objects, real and transitional, is present for all of us.
Indeed, Lars is not the only character in the film to utilize a transitional object. His office mates Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) and Margo (Kelli Garner) adorn their desks with action figures and a teddy bear, respectively. They tease each other by hiding them, and the anxiety they each express speaks to the vital importance of such objects. In a scene late in the movie, after Kurt has hanged Margo’s teddy bear, Lars gently removes the noose and performs CPR. By this time, the entire town has entered into Lars’s delusion, accepting Bianca as a town citizen. But in this scene, Lars quietly affirms the significance of Margo’s bear.
The scene is about a transitional object–the teddy–and about how two real people can enter into an agreed delusion about the reality of the object. This is exactly how Winnicott describes the mother’s (family’s) attitude toward a child’s transitional object. We all know how important it is, and we engage with it as if it is real. The scene does not represent mental illness or regression, however. It marks Lars’s progress. He is now able to engage with a “real” girl, Margo, and his sensitivity to her feelings reveals not only his growing capacity to connect with another but also to their growing intimacy. Watching this scene makes the viewer aware that we all need transitional objects at times. They soothe and protect us from the terror of loneliness, and they connect us to each other.
At the end of the film, after Bianca’s funeral, Lars makes a real connection with a real girl.
In this close-up of the two, Margo holds, witnesses, and shares Lars’s pain over the death of Bianca but also offers an alternative in the real world. They both wear pink, perhaps signifying an identification with one another but also perhaps as a tribute to the importance of mothers. Lars’s eyes look down; his basic personality–shy as it is–remains unchanged. But so much has changed for Lars as he has experienced the holding necessary to grow up.
Lars and the Real Girl testifies to the need for good enough mothering, a nurturing holding environment, and objects that we can use to retain a feeling of comfort and safety in a world of danger and loneliness. It testifies to the need for an environment that facilitates the capacity to deal with the traumatic fact of separation and to become an independent (adult) person. And, finally, it testifies to the universal need to to have our pain and our deepest longings witnessed, heard, held and understood.