In “Lars and the Real Girl,” Ryan Gosling plays the reclusive young man of the title who suddenly finds a fulfilling romance… with a sex doll he ordered online. But anyone on the hunt for something salacious might as well stay home Lars doesn’t use “Bianca” for the anatomically correct purpose for which she was created, but instead treats her as a genuine (mobility-challenged) companion, bringing her to dinner at his brother’s, taking her with him to church and inventing a whole back story for her while the town gamely plays along.
This isn’t the first time a film has spun an outrageous fetish-based premise into something softer and soulful in fact, the kinder, gentler tale of unconventional sexuality has become a trend, particularly in indie film. Is the treatment of such topics like a fairy tale a way of normalizing them or just sanitizing them for wider, titillated consumption? Here are a few notable entries in the field:
Boxing Helena (1993)
Generally considered an abysmal howler of a motion picture, this film from Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David) stars Julian Sands as Nick, a surgeon obsessed with a woman named, yes, Helena (Sherilyn Fenn) who scorns his attentions until she’s conveniently hit by a car outside of his house. A few emergency and then non-emergency amputations later, Helena’s a foul-mouthed torso with nothing better to do than dig into Nick’s sad psyche and eventually fall in love with him. What’s meant to be a gauzy exploration of love at its darkest is mostly just extremely silly, even before the “it was all a dream” capper.
Lynne Stopkewich’s first film caused a minor furor when in premiered at the Toronto Film Festival which is as you’d expect, given that it follows Sandra (Molly Parker) from a death-obsessed girlhood to a life as a full-blown practicing necrophiliac/embalmer. The film isn’t squeamish about Sandra’s sexual preferences, but it is insistent on painting her acts as ones of spirituality, flooding a shot of her, erm, communing with a corpse with white light as she compares what she’s doing to “looking into the sun and going blind.”
Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson transformed Mary Gaitskill’s dark little short story into an improbably sweet film about sadomasochism. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a damaged girl with a self-mutilation tendency who finds in her new boss (James Spader) unexpected salvation when he bends her over his desk and spanks her for making a few typing mistakes. The film keeps its exploration of S&M practices on the tame side, being more a film about an unconventional romance than an underground lifestyle, but, as one character observes in support, “Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”
Talk To Her (2002)
The lives of the two men in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk To Her” are subsumed by those of the women they love, who burned brighter while conscious and who, even in comas, seem to loom larger than their caregivers. It’s appropriate, then, that in “Talk To Her”‘s movie within a movie “The Shrinking Lover,” that dynamic is literally realized in the form of a scientist who takes a potion that shrinks him to Tom Thumb proportions. Wandering the landscape of his sleeping lover’s body, he ultimately (and Freudianly) crawls inside her and vanishes, an act of love and sacrifice that, in the film, is followed by a far more disturbing real life echo.
Any documentary that focuses on a man who died from a ruptured colon after having sex with a horse is going to have an inherent rubberneck factor. Director Robinson Devor is clearly intent on subverting all those who’d wish to gawk, perhaps to his film’s detriment “Zoo” is a lyrical, beautifully shot meditation on love and connection that mostly manages to avoid the man-on-horse sex that it is, in theory, about. Good taste and humanism all have their place, but it’s hard to imagine that even those involved in the bestiality community that investigations later broke up would be so prudish.