Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lars, the Real Girl and Foucault

Renée and I watched Lars and the Real Girl the other night starring Ryan Gosling. I can't believe that this movie was passed over for best picture for the Academy Awards. It did get nominated for best screenplay (well deserved) but lost to Juno (another great film). Gosling also got a SAG nomination for best actor but, unfortunately, was overlooked by Mr. Oscar.

If you're a fan of the HBO series Six Feet Under, you'll really enjoy this one. The screenplay was written by Nancy Oliver who wrote some of the best Six Feet Under episodes. Not only is this movie fall-off-your-chair funny (which I did when Lars introduces his family to Bianca), but it's also a sociopolitical commentary on how society deals with emotional and mental health. I won't get into the plot too much, but the story is about a delusional breakdown of the main character, Lars (played by Gosling) who has been unable to deal effectively with past family tragedy (the loss of his mother, occasioned by his own birth, and the loss of his father when he was a young boy). Clinically, he would be labeled with something like social anxiety disorder (a 'sad' acronym at best). Lars has repressed his emotions to such a degree that even the touch of another person causes him pain (the kind of pain when your feet get really cold then you come into a warm house and they feels just like that, Lars tells us). He ends up ordering a 'real doll' from a website and begins a delusional relationship with her and the rest of the story deals with how his family and his community (his church, workplace, friends, his therapist, and a real girl) support him and help him through his delusion.

I've also been reading Foucault's History of Madness and early on, Foucault talks at length about leprosy and how medieval Europe shunned and relegated all lepers to the outside of the city gates (a scapegoating role the mentally ill--the mad--would come to fulfill after leprosy disappeared from Europe). Foucault then takes us through a medieval liturgy of exclusion:
'Dearly beloved', says a ritual from a church in Vienne in the south of France, 'it has pleased God to afflict you with this disease, and the Lord is gracious for bringing punishment upon you for the evil that you have done in this world.' The leper was then dragged out of the church by the priest and his acolytes...but was assured that he was God's witness: 'however removed from the church and the company of the saints, you are never separated from the grace of God.'...Abandonment is his salvation, and exclusion offers an unusual form of communion (History of Madness, 6).
This liturgy of exclusion would carry over into the eighteenth century as society became less and less hospitable to madness, controlling it by labeling it, corralling it, and 'solving' it with institutions and the systematic treatment of 'unreason'.

What struck me in this movie, is how Lars' family and community (even his church!) came alongside him and didn't expel him or scapegoat him. But the most compelling aspect, in my opinion, is how the therapist works with Lars. We never get the sense that she's treating a problem and Lars is never medicated. Lars learns how to be touched by her and Lars eventually makes the decision himself to finish his delusion. In one scene, Lars' brother wants an answer, he wants a solution to this problem as quick as possible. The therapist tells him, in probably the most subversive scene of the movie, that this delusion isn't a problem, in fact, it can be a gift for Lars and for those around him, which in fact, it turns out to be.

Now, I realize that labeling this delusion 'a gift', especially for those who have lived through or live with mental health issues, is a tenuous description but one that is, at least in this situation, quite apt. In fact, in the
Foucaultian sense, this 'gift' has its own dignity--this ship of fools is allowed to float on without being 'powered' over, without being confined and expelled from society. In fact, if the church can come to behave like Lars' community, learning to live with and within the delusions of life, we can also learn how to accept the gift of difference that mental and emotional health issues bring with them into our communities.

1 comment:

Patrick Roberts said...

just saw Lars and the Real Girl, Ryan Gosling did a great job playing out his character's psychological transition from totally dysfunctional to somewhat functional; i appreciate the fact that the producers of this movie didn't feel obligated to insert the usual small-town conflict (the town ostracizes him, etc.)... the conflict is mostly between Lars and himself