Lars and the Real Girl and the nature of mind
I watched Lars and the Real Girl last night and it left me sobbing like a baby. I always cry at sweet movies but this was like gut-wrenching sobbing, deep and powerful. It felt like dying and it felt so wonderful. Do you know the story? Lars is a twenty-seven year old recluse who lives in the garage behind the family home, which is occupied by Lars’ older brother and his expectant wife. Isolative, socially awkward, unhappy, but also longing for love. His mother died giving birth to him and he was raised by his now dead father. His older brother left home as soon as he could, leaving Lars alone with his dad.
Lars ends up buying a life-sized sex doll and has the delusion that she is real, that she is his girl friend. He makes up a whole story about her past, he buys her a wheelchair so he can push her around, he cuts her food and eats it for her, and interacts with everyone through her. With Bianca at his side, he slowly enters the stream of the real world, even as he maintains his delusion that she is a real person. Patricia Clarkson plays the town doctor, who also is a psychologist. Under the guise of treating Bianca for low blood pressure, she sets up therapy sessions with Lars and provides the space to explore his experience of the world. Under her instructions, the brother, sister, and eventually the whole small town begin to treat Bianca as if she were real, too. It begins as a awkward, difficult, strange exercise but flowers quickly into something that is profoundly affecting Lars and all of those around him. There’s a sweet girl who is interested in Lars, but he is in no way ready to engage with her on the real world’s terms- it is simply too frightening for him.
Bianca’s presence allows Lars to shift his awareness from self-consciousness to outer-directed consciousness- with everyone talking to and with Bianca through him, he obtains a kind of outsider’s view of the sweetness and love underlying most human interactions, and begins to slowly warm up to these experiences. She provides a safe filtering mechanism, what Jungian therapists refer to as a “transitional object.” Initially that transitional object is represented by a blue blanket worn by Lars that was knitted for him by his mother before her death. At twenty-seven, he was still carrying around his baby blanket. In Jungian psychology, the relationship between mother and infant is one of first, wholly nurturing and supportive love that gradually gives way to disillusionment as the mother teaches the child that he is not the center of the universe, that other people do exist, that they are separate, etc. The blanket as transitional object is the first “not me” object the child relates to, and they use those objects to help them navigate the ground between being everything, being non-dual totally, to a dualistic identity of “self” and “other.” Once that transition has been successfully navigated, the object can be abandoned and the child can interact directly with the world and the people in it.
So the movie begins with the blanket as transitional object, one we can all recognize in our own lives as a direct experience. When we see the blanket, we understand Lars’s interior landscape directly. We know what he’s feeling. When Bianca appears and he starts acting as if she were real, we are thrown off initially. We think he’s crazy, that he’s lost his mind. And in a way, he has. But what’s really happened is that Lars has upped his transitional object game. A blanket no longer provides quite enough of a protective screen between him and the harshness of the outer world, and it isn’t enough for him to make the leap into that world. Bianca, as a simulacrum of a grown woman who loves him, is that transitional object, as well as a love object and a manifestation of female love and affection standing in for his dead mother.
Over the course of the movie we watch as Bianca’s life, at first totally run by Lars and centered on him and his needs, gradually expands to include those in Lars’s social circle. Bianca attends church with the family. She’s offered a job in a clothing store a few days a week. She volunteers at the hospital. Town people pick her up, drop her off, and include her in the very fabric of their small town lives- all as a way of showing love for Lars- which he can’t yet see. Lars finds himself threatened, disillusioned by Bianca’s increasingly independent life and his own, still unmet, needs. They begin to fight. He goes bowling with the cute girl from work while Bianca is at a church group. He begins to see and feel the real world in a direct way for the first time, and to be drawn to its possibilities for true interaction and love. Something more than Bianca can give him.
As he is drawn more deeply into the real world, he no longer is served by Bianca’s presence in his life. She falls deeply ill, and over the course of a week or so, she dies. Lars has the opportunity to grieve her death, to come to terms with his grief over his mother’s death, and to begin the slow movement towards an authentic life and interacting directly with things as they are.
So this movie ends with him at the gravesite after the funeral, with the girl from work standing next to him, and he asks her “Do you want to go for a walk?” and she says, simply, “Yes.”
I cried like two or three babies. I was slain. And throughout the movie I was so touched by Ryan Gosling’s performance. I loved him. I wanted him to be happy. I felt his pain and sorrow and loneliness. He opened my bodhisattva heart and aroused profound bodhichitta in me and my tears were sweet and hot and endless. Lars and the Real Girl opened me and made bodhichitta flow through me like a vast river. I feel like I was blessed by the movie.
It wasn’t until the next day that the penny dropped for me and I saw the movie entirely from a dharmic perspective. I realized that just as Lars used Bianca as his transitional object to allow him to safely navigate the abandoning of a delusion that comforted him but ultimately kept him trapped in suffering; in the same way I use my ego as my Bianca. I am Lars. I believe that my Bianca is real, and I lug her around with me everywhere I go. I make the people who love me interact with Bianca instead of letting them see me, the real me. I believe that my ego is me, that it is real, that it exists, that it protects me and keeps me safe and makes me happy and needs me to take care of it and protect it from a harsh and cruel world. We are locked in a delusional dance, but there’s only me dancing. The world around me does it’s best to talk to Bianca, since I insist upon it, even though it would rather just be with me directly, without the delusion and the protective screen.
Our world is populated almost entirely with Larses. We are all of us Lars. All terrified and lonely and longing for love and jumping out of our skins with unhappiness and suffering. We cling to a delusion that we created to protect us and love us, but it IS a delusion, nothing more. No matter how many people talk to her, dress her, cut her hair, or take her to church, she isn’t real. She can’t be. Our task is to wake up to this delusion and to let go of it. To let Bianca “die” so that “we” can live. As long as we persist in maintaining and feeding the delusion that our “selves” are real, that they exist as solid, independent, true objects, we are bound to our suffering. But once we begin to wake up to the truth, we have the chance to save ourselves, to gain the courage to interact directly with things as they actually are, and we can leave our suffering behind.
The whole of the dharma is simply that process of letting go of Bianca and stepping into the real world. Once we become aware of her shortcomings, she’s no longer as intoxicating and alluring as she was in the beginning. It isn’t that Bianca is bad- she’s entirely neutral. She can be useful. She can protect us at times. She can give us a cushion and space when the real world is too frightening for us- but only briefly, never for good. The Dharma acts as a wake-up call to us, and shows us another way. We can set Bianca down. We can let her die, or simply let her rest without our attention. We can begin to look around, test the air, feel the ground in a way that is no longer deluded. We can be unprotected because nothing can harm us. We can love because we are love. We can wake up to our situation and then we can wake others up to theirs, one by one. It’s simple, really. It’s about growing up, about stepping into the world, and gaining the courage to love everyone who is going through exactly the same thing.
Lars and The Real Girl is dharma teaching. A really, really good one.
All of the psychological concepts and terms were taken from this great article by Margaret Jordan, PhD. Any mistakes in use or understanding are mine, not hers.
A PSYCHOANALYTIC LOOK AT LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
Margaret Jordan, PhD | Visit her website at www.drmargaretjordan.com
All the dharma stuff is just my own thinking and any errors are solely mine. May this be of benefit to all beings.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you know the movie. Or go watch it, then come right back. I’ll be here.