“Therapeutic Projection” or “How Lars and the Real Girl Made Me Cry”

Yeah, it was embarrassing. The eyes got all leaky a few times. Had to get my sleeve up to try to get rid of the evidence and get my composure.

Lars and the Real Girl ends a streak of frustrations for me at the theater [this was written October 28,2007] and was the first film to deeply move me in a theater since the early spring. It was such a beautiful film, filled with indeterminate cartharses. What I found most fascinating and moving about the film is that everything revolves around central metaphors with several different kinds of meaning there for different viewers (or the same viewer) to find resonant.

As is well known the film revolves around a lonely man named Lars (Ryan Gosling) and the sex doll that he is deluded into believing is his actual girlfriend, Bianca. Rather than trying to talk some sense into Lars, his sister-in-law and his brother [played by very sweet Emily Mortimor (Match Point) and Paul Schneider (All The Real Girls)] take the advice of Patricia Clarkson’s doctor character (The Station Agent, All The Real Girls) to play along with Lars’s delusion because he has created this relationship as a means of working through something emotionally. Soon more members of the community are encouraged to play along as part of helping Lars.

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Without giving any more specifics away, the result is a moving, understated comedy that explores the role that projections and fictions play in our psychological lives. Lars’s delusion is narratively specific and so on one level is about mental illness and a fable about the healing powers of patience and thoughtful person-specific care. It’s about how helping people involves understanding them and opening yourself up to their reality and how each person’s journey and needs are radically different and inscrutable. There’s a bit of fantasy and idealism in this story, which is why I call it a fable, but there’s nonetheless an admirable hope and suggestion in it too. The film is about the ways that in an ideal world people would work with each other to address their unique needs, even when this involves going way out of their normal way and involves opening themselves up to seeing the world through each other’s unique eyes. It’s a wonderful, optimistic story of openheartedness towards a lonely, confused and conflicted man and his inanimate girlfriend.

But the film goes beyond this surface level at which we can distance ourselves from Lars as just a delusional man. His inanimate girlfriend upon which he projects a whole personality is a symbol for anything any of us might idealize and project our desires or fears into. At least in my case, I totally resonated with this theme of idealization and projection. I know I’ve treated a real live, moving, thinking woman the way that Lars treats an inanimate one—-namely, as a projection of my hopes, dreams, and fears seperate from who she might have herself been. And this isn’t just about women, this is about anyone or anything we turn into an imaginary ideal of goodness or threat or whatever, so that we can find ourselves through that.

Healthiness comes not from alienated relationships to realities in which we only encounter them through the idealizations we create of them. The film doesn’t simply condemn such projections and false idealizations but instead opens us up to their possible therapeutic value. It rather explores how the use of projections and idealizations can be a stepping stone to coming to terms with reality. This is a humane, non-judgmental, and yet nonetheless growth oriented view of psychological projections in which I found a good deal of helpful wisdom and emotional catharsis.

One level on which this metaphor works is in helping us to relate to the meaning of art and fiction for helping us work through things. Lars’s use of narrative and fiction for coming to terms with emotions and problems he can’t articulate is really fascinating and illuminating with respect to the media of art. I found it fascinating throughout the film to think about the fine line between Bianca and the “real people” in the film. They’re all fake. Through our empathetic imaginative engagement with these fake people, into whom we project so much reality, including so many reflections of ourselves—our own fears, hopes, ideals, etc.—-we can therapeutically work through emotions and ideas we might not have prior been able to, or still be able to, articulate verbally and cognitively. Through art we empathetically connect to others and traverse emotional journeys, through projecting ourselves and our experiences into constructed narrative characters. Lars relates to Bianca like we relate to Lars and all the other fictional characters who help us escape reality a little while with the ideal result of coming back to it in the end, now more ready to deal with it.

I’m not even sure these are the only three levels to interpret the film, but I loved the experience of watching the film simultaneously from three such rich and personally meaningful angles.

Beyond the themes, let’s talk aesthetics. Ryan Gosling is a masterful actor. Between The Believer, Half Nelson, and now this film, I could not be any more impressed at his transformative powers and his communicative powers. He’s unbelievable and if he doesn’t get a nomination for an Oscar, there should be a riot.

The movie is also very funny. It’s not frequently funny but there’s not a forced joke. Going in I was a little wary of the premise and not up to seeing forced, obvious humor of an ongoing single joke stretched to 90 minutes. And wisely that’s not what they did. The film focuses on the characters and emotional truth and never pushes Bianca into ludicrous situations only for the sake of gags. The humor comes out of the charm of the situation. A line here and there, a scenario just naturally preposterous. Often a single scene would be on one level hilarious and silly and on the other moving at the same time, with the same aspects. It can all be taken as comedy and all be taken as moving and meaningful. It’s a perfect balance guided by an incredibly nuanced and careful script and perfectly real performances and direction.

A

Quite simply the very best film of 2007 that I’ve seen and I have seen a heck of a lot of them.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Dave Smith

    Thanks for highlighting this on Facebook, Dan, somehow I had missed it. I loved the film, which I unfortunately didn’t get around to seeing until a year or so ago, especially for the unconventional yet loving way in which Lars was treated by friends and family – and how therapeudic and effective it was for him. But you’ve added some real insight here, which I didn’t fully recognize or appreciate the first time around: that of Bianca representing our own idealized hopes and dreams, and how we struggle to come to terms with living a “real” life in the midst of such fantasy. I now need to rewatch this!

  • Dan Fincke

    hahahaha, thanks Dave.

    I’m puzzled as to how you could miss any of the posts that you hand imported over from my previous blog yourself. I thought you retyped every word by hand ;)

  • http://thenface2face.wordpress.com Karen Butler

    I saw this movie with my daughter and husband last night and it has continued to haunt me. And I had to wipe away tears more than once while watching it. It is one of the most deeply affecting and altogether wonderfully profound movies that I have seen in a long time, and I thank you for helping me see some things I hadn’t fully realized about it yet.
    I agree that one of the wonderfullest things about the film is this strange power it has to enable us to see and articulate our deepest longings — our projections, if you will. You focus on (as Mr. Smith says) “Bianca representing our own idealized hopes and dreams, and how we struggle to come to terms with living a “real” life in the midst of such fantasy”,

    I think it is odd that you neglect the idea of therapeutic community, and the power it has to heal an individual as they surround and protect a hurting member. Perhaps a bit of denial is at work here, as well as projection? Because you seem to dismiss as a fable the community that so beautifully expresses God’s love to Lars, that is so instrumental in giving him the emotional strength to become a man, and “put away childish things.”
    It wasn’t a fable to me at all, the love of God’s people that enveloped me when I had my own struggle to put away my childish ways of coping with the world, my own deep denial that led me to a psychotic break. It was not the only element in my healing, but it was an essential thing. These kinds of communities do exist and even in secular models they are a powerful force for mental wellness and psychosis recovery, as these studies of the Finnish pioneering approach called ‘Open Dialog’ demonstrate. Robert Whittaker discusses both the Soteria community model of care for first time psychotic patients, and the Open dialog model at the 22 minute mark of this talk. http://www.madinamerica.com/2013/01/antipsychotics-in-open-dialogue-therapy/


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