A Psychoanalytic Look at "Lars and the Real Girl"

The 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl serves as a fine introduction to the enduring insights of British psychologist D.W. Winnicott, in this review by psychoanalytic psychologist Margaret Jordan.

A PSYCHOANALYTIC LOOK AT LARS AND THE REAL GIRL

Margaret Jordan, PhD | Visit her website at www.drmargaretjordan.com

The following comments were made in a post-screening discussion of the film Lars and the Real Girl in a program sponsored by The Jung Center of Houston and the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Society on August 27, 2009.  The film is the story of the way a troubled young man, Lars, used a life-sized female doll for healing, with the help of a local doctor and the people in his small town.

 I’d like to begin our discussion of this evening’s film by asking, “What do we know about Lars?”, and then we’ll move on to “Why is he like this?” and “What made it possible for him to get better?”  I’ll propose some answers to these questions with a little help from psychoanalysis, and the British analyst Donald Winnicott, in particular. 

Lars is a 27-year-old man who lives in a community that is a lot like what I imagine Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon to be.  People of hardy Scandinavian stock and non-Scandinavians alike brave the cold winter, do their work, attend the Lutheran church, and more or less treat each other decently.  We know that Lars’ mother died at the time of his birth, and that his father then slipped into what sounds like a state of depression that lasted until his death a few years ago.  We don’t know who took care of Lars or how he was raised, but we know that his older brother Gus feels guilty that he left home as early as he could, believing that he could have made a difference for Lars if he had stayed.

Lars has schizoid personality disorder.  He is not interested in close relationships or in being part of his family.  He prefers spending time by himself, and he doesn’t show much emotion.  When he is presented with opportunities to form connections with others, he tries to avoid them.  He doesn’t seem to have much interest in sex, and he is hypersensitive to being touched, which is not unusual for schizoid people.  Also, it seems that his sister-in-law’s pregnancy has heightened his anxiety and pushed him toward the actions he takes to try to deal with the situation he finds himself in.

We don’t know exactly why Lars developed this way, but we’ll turn now to psychoanalytic theory to help us understand what might have happened.  Donald Winnicott was a 20th century British analyst who was first a pediatrician.  He paid a great deal of attention to babies and their mothers and based his theory of child development on what he observed (Winnicott, 1949).  He began with the notion that from birth, infants experience everything as being about themselves.  They have no understanding of anything or anyone as being separate from them.  Mothers and fathers who are psychologically healthy and attuned to their babies instinctively provide the kind of physical care and emotional devotion that infants need for proper development.  Gradually, and with just the right timing, the mother disillusions the baby, and the baby’s illusion that it is all-powerful and the creator of everything dissolves into awareness that other people are separate individuals, and that it is possible and desirable to have relationships with them.

In the first scene of the film we see Lars hiding from Karin, his sister-in-law, who is trying to include him in the family.  He has a baby blue crocheted blanket around his neck, which he lends to Karin to protect her from the cold.  We learn that his mother made this blanket while she was pregnant with him.  If Lars had developed normally, the blanket might have served as what Winnicott called a transitional object (Winnicott, 1951).  No doubt we are all familiar with the phenomenon of a small child choosing one special toy or soft fabric or article of clothing that, for a period of time, is an essential possession.  The child takes the object everywhere, practically wears it out, and doesn’t want it to be changed in any way, including being washed.  In Winnicott’s theory, the transitional object is the first “not me” possession, and it serves a psychological function in the process of disillusionment I referred to earlier.  In a healthier experience of development, Lars might have used the blanket as a transitional object to facilitate his moving into the experience of relating to people as separate individuals.  But this clearly didn’t happen, because we see the chronologically adult Lars hanging on to his baby blanket and fleeing from the possibility of relating to other people.

Six weeks go by, and we find out that Lars has ordered a life-size female doll, but instead of using it as a sex toy, he treats it in a manner very similar to the way children play with dolls.   He acts as if she is human.  He gives her a name, Bianca, and a back story which is very much like his own in some important ways.  He pretends that she eats, but actually eats her food for her.  Gus and Karin are shocked and horrified, and they take Lars to see Dr. Dagmar Berman, a physician who is also a psychologist, like Winnicott.  Dagmar understands immediately that Lars is trying to work through a psychological problem using Bianca, and she convinces Gus and Karin to go along with it.  She sets up “therapy” for Bianca that is really therapy for Lars.  And in spite of some serious reservations, the whole town soon joins in the pretense that Bianca is a woman.

Lars is now using Bianca as a transitional object, and this time, with the help of Dagmar and the community, he is able to make the transition to relationships with real humans, including Margo, a young woman who is interested in him.  As the townspeople join in the pretense, Lars gradually has to accept that Bianca is not completely under his control.  In other words, he becomes disillusioned with her, and his need for her as a transitional object begins to wane.  He deals with this by having her become ill and then die, but just before her death he kisses her, signaling that he has entered the realm of consensual reality, using her for his own initiation into sexual experience.  In this respect, he departs from the way children use their transitional objects.  They don’t mourn them; they just let go of them when they no longer need them.

We can also see Bianca’s death as Lars’ way of mourning his mother, whom he never knew.  Over the course of his relationship with Bianca, the blue blanket is seen less often around Lars’ neck, and more often on Bianca.  By the time of Bianca’s funeral, it is gone.  We can surmise that Lars no longer needs the blanket and can drop it.  He is now ready to be with a real girl, Margo.

One other comment I would like to make is about the way the townspeople provided what Winnicott called a holding environment for Lars.  For Winnicott, the holding environment (Winnicott, 1960) is the essential offering of physical and psychological holding that the mother gives the baby.  This holding environment protects the baby from having to deal with aspects of reality before it is ready to do so.  In this lovely story, the doctor and the community respond to Lars in a way that acknowledged his need to be held by their acceptance of his illusion that Bianca is a real woman, whether they realize what they are doing, or not.  They make it possible for him to use a real transitional object, so he can move to a relationship with the real girl.

If Gus and Karin had not sought help for Lars, and if Dagmar had not been the town doctor, it is doubtful that Lars would have been able to use Bianca so successfully to heal.  The character of Dagmar, so exquisitely played by Patricia Clarkson, is an exceedingly rare example of a therapist portrayed positively in a film.  It was not only her individual work with Lars, but also her counsel that Lars needed to have his illusion indulged, at least by his family, that created the necessary conditions for his recovery. 

It seemed to be easier for the women to go along with the fantasy, starting with what Gus called Karin’s “maternal instinct”.  Even the men, though, were participants in creating the holding environment that was essential for Lars to do the psychological work required for him to enter the world of human relationships.  Dagmar had the Winnicottian insight to recognize Lars’ pathological behavior as the beginning of the healing process that it indeed was, and Gus and Karin had the courage to ask for help and to trust that Dagmar was right.  Lars needed a transitional object and a holding environment to make it possible for him to heal, and he was lucky enough to have both in this delightful story.

References
Winnicott, D. W.  (1949)  Mind and its relation to the psyche-soma.  In Through Paediatrics to  Psycho-Analysis (pp. 243-254). New York: Basic Books, 1975.

Winnicott, D. W.  (1951) Transitional objects and transitional phenomena.  In Playing and Reality (pp. 1-25).  New York: Basic Books, 1971.

Winnicott, D. W.  (1960) The theory of the parent-infant relationship.  In The Maturational  Processes and the Facilitating Environment (pp. 33-55).  New York: International Universities Press, 1965.