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One might feel that Air Doll (Kûki ningyô) (2009) makes Lars and the Real Girl (2007) feel simplistic and uni-thematic, or that the latter makes the former seem overcomplicated and confused. There is an element of truth in both, perhaps.
Do they even have much in common, other than the life-sized sex-toy that is Nozomi and Bianca, and that both are fairy-tales ? In Lars’ case, Bianca is certainly a substitute, but he is not pretending, whereas Hideo (Itsuji Itao) is, and, for that reason, would never introduce Nozomi to his family in complete seriousness as his partner.
Lars (about which I have written here) operates on a psychological level (Bianca, in herself, is never anything other than Bianca, partly because Lars (Ryan Gosling) named her, and she arrives in the post), but Doll embodies Nozomi in Doona Bae’s body, and exploits the sexual aspect of so doing straightaway. It shows first her breasts as she awakens, then her naked back, before she tries on various outfits, settling on that of the French maid (albeit with knee-length white socks).
As Bae’s body has become that of Nozomi, she can do things for which Bianca relies on the agency of others (partly because Lars has pictured her to the world as disabled), such as dressing, eating, getting work : they have these things in common. As if somehow drawn to the world that most represents herself, Nozomi gets a job in a video shop, but there a huge element of unreality steps in :
With her having little more than a blank slate for a mind, which knows nothing about the world (though she soaks in information), and having never seen a film, would the (unnamed) manager – even though he fancies her – employ her ? Unless that is just the point, that the upskirt views justify her being there for the customers and for him, and she is being regarded just as a doll on the payroll.
With Bianca, the situation is turned around, with much input from the psychologist, from people laughing at or resenting Lars (because he is parading with a blow-up sex-doll as a girlfriend) to showing their care for him by entering into the fantasy, and looking after Bianca by involving her in evenings out. They come to approach her as if she were real, but the only person who believes that she is – and then has an epiphany – is Lars.
There is no depth or dimension to the film other than that, but it is moving, because of what everyone, led by Gosling, comes to do. It is a fairy-tale because the toughest person to get to sympathize is Gus (Paul Schneider), Lars’ brother, whereas we know that there would be much more antipathy in real life.
With Doll, it is Nozomi’s realization about who she is, what place she has in the world, that has an emotional effect, and that falls upon Bae as Nozomi in a way that it cannot upon Bianca, not just because she is almost always present to the camera (except when we see scenes of others’ lives). Where she is playing truant to Hideo, we would think that, as in any double-life, the film or she would be careful not to be caught out, but that seems to matter less, even to the extent of his unwittingly buying a DVD from her, which means that she will be there, not in his home, when he gets back.
It is not just at the level of whether she attempts not be caught out that the film seems frayed. Quite apart from whether Nozomi would make a worthwhile employee, the complete lack of impatience or bewilderment that Junichi (Arata Iura) has with her questions, or with helping her, is just a given, but he may be seeking something from her, too, or making her a substitute.
When she has a nasty accident in the shop, it brings their friendship closer, in a way that he proves to want to desire to repeat, over and over. Nozomi has feelings, but, despite having found that she has a heart, they seem at a distance, just as Junichi’s interest in her seems to be really more of a fascination. What fascinates him – is it the mechanism of her sexuality, rather than her as any sort of woman, just as the owner of the shop seems to have only a basic need for her ?
We see her enjoying things that she finds or is given, and she amasses a treasure that she carries with her, but she has been wounded by what she is told about having become a real woman : indeed, it has not even been noticed that she is real, so taken for granted is she is a possession and a toy to play with. Driven on by her experiences, and the knowledge of her mortality, she seeks further encounters with others who might explain to her who she is.
In this, she seems to stand for every woman, perhaps everyone, who wants to know about where to be in society, and the removable vagina that we twice see being washed stresses her functionality on that level. Back with Bianca, if she were a disabled person, she might not so readily receive the accommodation and acceptance that we see, and it is only through people’s deeper love and care for Lars that she has any place.
Maybe both films ask the same question, deep down : what is the role of a woman in relation to others when coming to their world from outside ?
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)