Monday, 24 March 2008

Cures for Loneliness

Years ago, my husband had a colleague whose family had "rescued" a Cabbage Patch doll from a garage sale and then made her part of the family. "Charlotte," as she was christened, had an extensive wardrobe, her own toys and sporting equipment, her own passport -- complete with stamps from all of the countries the family had visited -- a place at the table and her name on the answering machine message. You know the kind: "Hello, you've reached the home of John, Sue, Amy, Tommy and Charlotte . . .

There were absolutely no limits placed on Charlotte's inclusion in this family. Absent members sent emails to her; she appeared on Christmas cards; and she featured in family anecdotes -- just as the precocious child of any doting parents would.

I'll never forget the first time the family's matriarch told me about Charlotte. We were at a cocktail party, and it was quite a switch from the usual boring questions: "What does your husband do?" and "Do you have any children?" I was transfixed; fascinated. Although Charlotte's "mother" talked about her in an arch, laughing voice, at no point did she ever acknowledge that Charlotte wasn't quite real -- and in fact, was just a . . . doll.

Although I never knew the family well, I always asked about Charlotte whenever we happened to meet up again. In fact, almost everyone did; that was the funniest, strangest bit of the Charlotte phenomenon -- we all became co-conspirators in it.

I lost touch with "Charlotte" quite a few years ago, but I thought of her again today when I saw the strange and beautiful film Lars and the Real Girl. The "real girl" of the title is a life-sized plastic doll -- meant to be a sex toy for those who are desperately lacking in human company. Bianca, the doll, is presented as Lars's new girlfriend -- and while there are some truly hilarious moments, the film never mocks Lars's plight. Bianca is taken quite seriously, and her eventual inclusion into Lars's family and community ends up providing the bridge for both love and the communication of that love. If you haven't seen this film, what will follow is undoubtedly "plot-spoiling" -- but I hope that it will be plot-enhancing as well. Anyway, I don't really think the plot is as important as the subject. Knowing what happens really shouldn't diminish your pleasure in watching the events unspool and the characters change.

This is a story about Loneliness -- something that I've been thinking a lot about lately.
The premise of this film is that a young man, Lars, is so closed off from his own emotions that he can barely bring himself to speak or look at his family or work colleagues. In the opening scene of the film, we see him gazing out of the window of a minimally furnished room. The room looks cold, impersonal and lifeless; the light is flat -- and so is the snowy landscape he looks, rather expressionlessly, out on. The locked-in winter is symbolic of Lars's emotions -- and gradually, as the story unfolds, both begin to thaw.

His sister-in-law, Karin, lives next door and she is the first person we see reaching out to him. She wants to feed him, talk to him, touch him -- and one point she actually tackles him in order to break through his self-imposed isolation. While Lars covers himself in layers of clothing, Karin is first seen running across the snow . . . barely covered in a cotton robe. Her relative nakedness is physical and emotional -- over and over again in the film, she acts as a sort of emotional conduit between the two inarticulate brothers. Karin is newly pregnant at the start of the film, and the gestation of this baby mirrors the rebirth of the central characters -- predominately Lars, but not exclusively Lars. This pregnancy is meant to be understood as a catalyst: at first Lars seems to be jumping off the deep end of insanity, but eventually one realizes that he is finally growing into a whole self. We learn that his mother died during his birth; that he was raised by a heartbroken, utterly withdrawn father; that his brother Gus, Karin's husband, feels guilty about abandoning him. All of this is offered as an explanation for his delusion that Bianca is a "real girl." A plastic doll is a safe companion for someone who is afraid of loving and being loved.

Loneliness is a theme that is threaded throughout the movie: it isn't just Lars's plight; it belongs to everyone. His doctor, Dagmar, is quoted as saying that "this far north" any family practice doctor has to be a psychologist as well. We learn that her husband has died and she is childless, not through choice. Under the guise of treating Bianca's "low blood pressure," Dagmar slowing draws Lars out. Gradually, he learns not to flinch from her gentle touch. He describes being touched as a sort of "burn" that feels exactly like frostbitten skin warming up again.

The movie is set in a small community -- perhaps in Minnesota or North Dakota. Although the story seems to be set in the present, the fashions and community rituals give the story a slightly anachronistic feeling -- as if it were in a community isolated from the modern world. One of the charming aspects of the story is the gentle way it points out how crazy the majority of us are; the state of crazy being more or less normal. Lars's delusion is accepted as being a foible not so different from one's paranoia or another's perversion. Lars's dorky workmates are only slightly further along the spectrum of loneliness than he is. One of them collects action figures; the other has a favorite teddy. An odd, childish kind of flirting takes place through the medium of these inanimate objects. At one of the turning points in the movie, Lars actually gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Margo's teddy -- who has been "hanged" by the action figure owner. Although it is obvious throughout that Margo has a crush on Lars, he spurns her shy advances at first, and then gradually warms to them. Their first real conversation occurs when she confides in Lars that she has broken up with her boyfriend -- "for no good reason; only because he was boring." When she blurts out that she is just so lonely, there is an unspoken understanding that her unsatisfactory boyfriend is not so different from Lars's silent "girlfriend." An unsatisfactory relationship is better than no relationship at all.

I've always been a bit perplexed about the Charlotte thing; but I think that I understand it better now. I wonder if she served her own funny role in connecting people -- both within her family and outside of it. I wonder if the teenage children in boarding school found it easier, in a way, to email Charlotte than to confide in their parents. I wonder if the wife and husband -- living such different, separate lives -- found a common humorous ground through her. Were these weird people? Or just people finding their own creative solutions to the common problem of loneliness? As this movie so brilliantly shows us, we are just as likely to be lonely in our family -- perhaps even more likely.

As I was waiting at the bus stop this morning, I read this interview of Ryan Gosling -- who plays Lars in the film. Defending his character, quite rightly I think, Gosling says: "Lars has the same qualities as I do, and I think as everybody does: trouble communicating who you think you are and relating that to who you are and people's perceptions of who you are. It's difficult to be a person."

Even though my life is rich with friends and family, I realize that I started this blog -- not only to reactivate that writerly part of me -- but also to make connections. In my daily life, in this alien countryside, I have often felt lonely. Like Lars's doll, words -- flowing back and forth -- have become a sort of bridge for me.


maurinsky said...

Great post, and one that I can relate to. I tend to substitute busy-ness for connection, because I know I have issues with intimacy and connection. I can be friendly (when I feel motivated to do so), but I have a very hard time taking a situation from casual chit-chat to something more meaningful.

And I have a deep fear that when someone knows all my secrets, and what goes inside my mind, that they will brutally reject me.

I'll add the movie to my Netflix queue.

Brave Sir Robin said...

And I have a deep fear that when someone knows all my secrets, and what goes inside my mind, that they will brutally reject me.

So it's not just me.

Bee - I'll add more in a bit, but the whole Charlotte thing is uncomfortably close to Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf Don't you think?

As for Lars, It sounds really good. I had assumed it was guy+sex toy humor, so I wasn't interested. Now, I will see it for sure!

An unsatisfactory relationship is better than no relationship at all. Exactly. That is why we stay in unhealthy and or unsatisfactory relationships.

I feel a post coming on about
"Connection in an isolating age" . .

Bonus points - name that quote.
Hint - It's a lyric.

Anne said...

And I have a deep fear that when someone knows all my secrets, and what goes inside my mind, that they will brutally reject me.


That is why we stay in unhealthy and or unsatisfactory relationships.

Also seconded, though noting that even relationships that are unsatisfactory overall aren't necessarily without satisfactory elements.

BSR, the movie is funny, but not in the way you had assumed. It's poignant, endearing, thought-provoking... and funny without mocking the characters (except maybe the action figure guy).

Bee, this is an excellent piece--on Lars, on Charlotte, and in general. I empathize with your loneliness, as it is a feeling to which I seem to be particularly prone. The internet can be a good way of combating some of the loneliness, particularly through the development of a circle of fellow blogger friends. Still, there is something about sitting down to a meal or a movie with someone that blogging just can't replace.

Bee said...

Maurinsky, BSR and Anne,

Hmmmm . . . this post seems to have hit a nerve, but not the nerve I was expecting to hit. I must admit that I never worry about not being lovable (am I vain or well-adjusted?)-- and I can't understand why any of you do! I know enough already to know that you are eminently lovable.

Clearly my problem is that I seem to find EVERYONE lovable. I just loved Lars and his family and the church folk. I find Charlotte's family "lovable;" what others (my husband!) might think of as bizarre behavior, I admire as a charming quirk. (and a quirk that made cocktail party chit-chat so much more interesting!) I like when people surprise me; I like idiosyncracies. I think that they make us all so lovable.

I read a review of the movie today, and the reviewer was unbearably snarky about it. He obviously found it "twee," unrealistic, and American cutesy. It's a little out-there, maybe -- but not unrealistic. About the American slur: English people are polite; but for deep-down niceness and kindness, I would go with an American every time. (Anne, I'm thinking about the psychologist and the townspeople and Karin in the film.)

BSR, I don't get the Virgina Woolf reference . . . now Chuckie, maybe.

Anne, you're right: I saw the movie with one of my best friends -- and I kept squeezing her arm at all of the good bits -- the funny bits and the endearing bits. Also, her booming laugh is such a pleasure to hear.

Anne said...

I didn't find the movie unrealistic, either. The townspeople, psychologist, and Karin are SO kind (and, yes, lovable). They really seem to want what's best for Lars, and willingly play along with (even enjoy, eventually) something they initially find a little uncomfortable. I just adore Karin.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Ok, I will definitely watch this one.

Bee, I'm guessing well adjusted.

Bee, also - see here. The film is a really, really good adaptation of the play.

even relationships that are unsatisfactory overall aren't necessarily without satisfactory elements.

Yes, I suppose that is true as well, or it would be easier to leave them.

Bee said...

You know, I've seen that film -- but I couldn't catch the allusion. I was thinking too literally, and obviously looking for a (nonexistent) Cabbage Patch doll! I read the Wikipedia entry, and saw these words --"who is afraid to live their life free of illusions" to which Martha replies, "I am" -- and then understood exactly what you meant.
(Fun fact: one of my best friends is an Albee.)

To be fair to the "Charlotte" family, I always felt this was done entirely with a sense of fun -- and never really crossed the line into crazy/scary.

Brave Sir Robin said...

I think with George and Martha, it was not really crazy until she crossed a line, so George had to cross one of his own.

Do you think the idea of an invented child was done to make her feel better about not being able to have children, or for him to have an avenue to turn the ineffectiveness in his life into a more fantastical, idealistic picture?

May be both?

Anonymous said...

I think the phenom of Charlotte is only possible in British society which values a certain interpersonal distance (and values - perhaps even more - a sense of humor). I am guessing that many Americans would be confused and refuse to just go along with it and might take the parents aside privately to ask them if they needed counseling. --Jenine

Lucy said...

How fascinating!

It felt a little uncomfortably like what we do with our animals too, using them to connect within couples, families, between friends, perhaps anthropomorphising them and attributing motives, qualities etc that are not really accurate. In some families it's the car that seems rather to have this role. The Charlotte thing was just slightly more extreme.

'even relationships that are unsatisfactory overall aren't necessarily without satisfactory elements.' or that overall satisfactory relationaships aren't without unsatisfactory elelments; my husband and I often communicate, especially at strained moments, via the dog!

That was a very interesting review.

Bee said...


Must see "Who's Afraid" again before I can address this with any insight.

Well, Jenine --
They were a British family, but they found Charlotte at a Houston garage sale -- so I guess that she was (is?) American.

You really don't think Americans are crazy enough to use a Cabbage Patch doll as their go-between?

I so agree with you on the pets thing . . . it cracks me up when people ventriloquize their pets.

And you're also right about how people attribute names (and human characteristics) to their cars!

k said...

haven't seen lars yet. will rent & then read. i'm a no spoilers girl!