Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Winter Isn't Over Until Easter: Christological Motifs in Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real Girl, written by Nancy Oliver, directed by Craig Gillespie, starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, and Patricia Clarkson, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl is a quirky, independent movie about a socially awkward young man, made so by the death of his mother at his birth, the parenting of his heart-broken father, and his older brother’s escape from the home as soon as he was of age. Lars find human contact so difficult that touch causes him physical pain, which he compensates for by wearing gloves during handshakes and dressing in layers to resist the discomfort of a hug. He declines frequent invitations to join his brother Gus and Gus’s wife Karin for meals. When his sister-in-law becomes pregnant, Lars’ fears, the result of his own mother’s death, surface. Eventually, to create a “safe” relationship for himself, he orders a life-sized mail order love doll, names her Bianca, and introduces her to his family and friends as a real girl, his new girlfriend. She is a paraplegic (which explains why she can’t walk), shy (which explains why she doesn’t talk), the victim of the theft of her luggage (which explains why she has only the clothes she is wearing). Lars, it seems, has created a quite consistent explanation of Bianca’s quirks before he introduces her to the world.

Religious imagery and values abound throughout the movie. Lars goes to church, even uses it as an excuse to avoid an invitation. Bianca is explained as the Brazilian-Dutch daughter of missionaries who died at her birth, raised by nuns, now doing missionary work herself, but visiting the “real world” for a time. Lars asks Gus and Karin if Bianca can stay with them, since they are young and single and “religious”; he doesn’t think it would be right for them to share his garage apartment during her stay. According to Lars, Bianca has nurse’s training and believes it is her calling to help people. When Lars finds himself increasingly attracted to his coworker Margo, he finally tells Margo that he would never cheat on Bianca.

Further, one of the first places Karin and Gus go for help, after Dr. Dagmar has said that the best way to help Lars is to go along with his delusion and treat Bianca as real, is to the local church, where a small group of elder members agrees to play along after the pastor says, “The question is, as always, what would Jesus do?” And my question is, “Who is Jesus in this movie?” Bianca, the life-sized doll, functions as an unlikely Christ figure in the movie at first; quite soon after Bianca is introduced, the community as a whole picks up the role, deliberately choosing to act as they believe Jesus would.

Bianca is the Christ figure because she shares several important traits with Jesus. First, she becomes “human” to identify with Lars’ condition and help him find healing. And, of course, she loves Lars unconditionally and expects nothing in return except the freedom to be herself. Since Lars is creating all her “dialogue,” he puts whatever words suit him in her mouth. Bianca reveals herself through his words to be modest, gentle, and self-giving. She even declines to defend herself when Lars yells at her for not being available when he wants to spend time with her, much as Jesus declined to defend himself before Pilate. Thirdly, according to Lars, she is not interested in superficial, material things, so she is willing to wear Karin’s cast-off clothes.

More significantly, Bianca enables Lars to become all he was created to be; she is the catalyst for healed relationships with his family and community and even of his ability to tolerate physical human contact. For instance, when Lars gets invited to a party that he would normally not attend, he finally decides to go as long as he can bring his “girlfriend.” At the party, because he must make sure that Bianca is comfortable, he is able to see beyond himself and begin to speak with other people. It is also here that he notices Margo in a new way, when another man at the party is flirting with her, and the seeds for a “real” relationship are planted. Also, because Bianca needs medical treatments for her various tropical illnesses, Dr. Dagmar spends significant time with him while Bianca is “resting” from those treatments. She discovers his extreme fear of being touched (he describes the pain he experiences as a “burning,” similar to when one’s feet freeze and then they begin to thaw out) and begins to treat that; his ability to withstand touching becomes a barometer for how healthy his real human relationships are becoming. The longer he is with Bianca, the more human contact he can handle. This is signified by a couple of glove-free handshakes later in the story, one with Margo herself. Dr. Dagmar also discovers the root of Lars’ fears about Karin’s pregnancy and helps him to put those fears in context. Bianca’s presence helps Dr. Dagmar “cast out fear” in Lars.

Bianca even makes it possible for him and others to admit to and confess their “sins,” and seek forgiveness, especially for self-centeredness. In one remarkable scene, Lars speaks of the rites of passage of Bianca’s culture and asks Gus how he knew when he became a man; he wonders if the sex act was his rite of passage. Gus, clearly uncomfortable with the topic, finally is able to put words to his thoughts; perhaps he is even just then truly forming the thoughts. He says that becoming a man is when you do the right thing even when it hurts, when you think about other people instead of yourself all the time, that you don’t act like a jerk even when that’s what you feel like doing. Then he looks Lars in the eye and apologizes for leaving him with their damaged, “heart-broken” father and thinking only of himself; this is clearly something he has been needing—but unable—to do until now. And Lars forgives Gus, immediately. Significantly, during this scene, Gus is chopping celery and folding towels for his tired, pregnant wife.
The community, out of their love for Lars, accepts Bianca as real and finds ways to include her, and by extension Lars, in their world. Much as Bonhoeffer believed that the church is the post-resurrection Jesus on earth, the community in which Lars lives does the work of Jesus in Lars’ life. When Lars takes Bianca shopping, she is invited by one of Karin’s friends to model at a local clothing store two afternoons a week and “all day Saturdays.” Another of Karin’s friends styles Bianca’s hair. The children in church are gently taught not to stare at Bianca or try to touch her. She is invited to read to the sick children at the hospital, which she does with the aid of an audiobook propped in her lap. These people had tried to be kind to Lars in the past, but he was unable to accept their kindness. Bianca makes it possible for him to begin to have relationships with real people.

Mrs. Gruner, who takes Bianca to a banquet, admonishes Lars not to be so selfish about his time with his girlfriend—she has a life of her own—and Lars learns that relationship means not just that he is free to be himself, but that his significant other must be free to be herself, too. In other words, he learns empathy. His own pain had kept him from that adult skill until now. When he gets angry over Bianca’s absence and complains to Karin that no one cares, she lets him have it, telling him that everything everyone does to welcome Bianca, they do because they care about Lars; they love him. It is a slight reversal of Jesus’ admonition to care for the hungry, naked, and imprisoned, “When you do it for the least of these, you do it for me.” When the community does it for Bianca, they are really doing it for the suffering Lars.

In another scene shortly thereafter, Lars sees that Margo is suffering over a coworker having “hung” her teddy bear in a noose and the end of a casual dating relationship. Sweetly, and with concern for Margo instead of for himself, he listens to her story, loosens the noose, and does CPR on the teddy bear. Margo laughs. Lars is learning the lessons that Mrs. Gruner and Karin have tried to teach him, and the result is the beginning of Lars’ empathy for others.

Later, after Bianca has been elected to the school board, Lars agrees to go bowling with Margo while Bianca is at a school board meeting. As they are leaving, and we see Lars struggling with his growing affection for Margo, they step outside and see snowflakes. Lars says, “I was hoping winter was over.” And Margo replies, “Winter isn’t over until Easter.” This line is the heart of this movie. Lars’ winter will not be over until Bianca dies, as our winter is not over until Jesus dies and rises again, as winter in Narnia is not over until Aslan returns to the land. Bianca develops a fatal illness; the women of the community bring food and sit with him, actually instructing him in how to handle a crisis. When she finally “dies,” the church holds a funeral, and Lars celebrates what Bianca has brought to his life. In the end, as Jesus did, Bianca sacrifices herself so that others—Lars in particular— may live. At the graveside, Margo stands next to Lars, who finally says, “Would you like to go for a walk?” Margo says yes, they turn slightly away from each other, and both of them smile. And as in the story of Jesus, healing replaces brokenness, relationship replaces self-centeredness, and hope replaces mourning.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Debbie! I have seen the movie and loved it. I loved all of the Christological motifs that you wrote about! Fantastic and awesome writing!
    Sue Kuwitzky

  2. If someone asked me five years ago if my mother would be writing an article comparing a full-sized sex doll to Jesus' healing power, I would have stared at them. Now, I just smile. Good points, well written. I enjoy.