Between M3GAN and now Barbie, 2023 may go down as the year of the doll movie. Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN, a potent tale of grief-management outsourced, follows a young girl assigned a robotic doll to comfort her in the wake of her parents’ death. And in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a series of odd circumstances compel the Mattel doll (Margot Robbie) to leave Barbie Land and venture out into the real world.
But long before doll movies were centered around women or marketed towards little girls, they were populated by lonely, often unstable male protagonists seeking companionship. These men found a doll ideal in that regard — after all, it’s a partner pliable enough that you can project any personality onto it, who always listens and is unable to voice any dissent. It remains frozen in time, young and lovely forever.
Doll movies frequently function as psychological character studies — less about the toys and more about how people react to them. Are they seeking a companion without the fuss of human interaction? Or are they simply looking for a blank slate on which to project their desires?
Often, in movies about ventriloquists, the doll becomes a medium for seemingly decent men to articulate their real thoughts, all the crude, ugly things they can’t verbalise themselves. And then there are the horror films, in which the innocence of a child’s plaything is what makes it so terrifying when it’s corrupted.
Barbie is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 21 July 2023.
The Doll (1919)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll, based on the operetta La Poupée, establishes its artifice from the beginning, its obvious sets and hand-drawn elements resembling a pop-up book a parent might read to their child. This childlike framing complements the protagonist’s eschewing of adult responsibilities — under pressure to marry but afraid of women, Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) decides to trick his uncle (Max Kronert) by marrying a mechanical doll instead.
Like the protagonists of other doll films, Lancelot uses his as a substitute for human companionship, but not because he craves it; rather, because he is desperate to avoid it. What he doesn’t realise is that his doll is actually the maker’s daughter (Ossi Oswalda) in disguise. In contrast to its child-friendly visuals — there’s a paper sun that smiles down benevolently on Lancelot — the film adopts a distinctly risqué tone, with a sly take on women’s sexuality and instructions for doll maintenance that double up as sexual innuendoes.
The Doll (1962)
Director: Arne Mattsson
Swedish drama The Doll opens with a frank admission of loneliness from night watchman Lundgren (Per Oscarsson), whose deep self-loathing is only matched by his envy of those around him. A man who just wants to be seen and heard, he fixates on a department-store mannequin tragically capable of neither. When he steals her and brings her home, they initially settle into a life of quiet domesticity, his desperate mind deluding him into believing she’s alive and in love with him.
Gradually, however, the relationship begins to sour when Lundgren begins projecting his failures and insecurities onto her. As his fragile state is exacerbated through a lifetime of isolation, toxic masculinity and the cruelty of his housemates, director Arne Mattsson adopts an empathetic view of mental illness in a society utterly ill-equipped to handle it.
Director: Richard Attenborough
Fats the doll gets to be everything his ventriloquist owner Corky (Anthony Hopkins) is not. Calm and decisive where Corky is prone to panic, talkative where Corky is shy and reticent. The real extent of Corky’s reliance on Fats, however, extends far beyond their onstage partnership. The dummy is a way for him to voice vulgar thoughts while still retaining the humble persona that endears him to industry bigwigs and a means of avoiding accountability for his worst impulses.
Eventually, this two-hander performance is one Corky’s no longer in control of — his delusions about Fats’ sentience trigger a role reversal, with him internalising the role of the puppet and the doll as his master. This Richard Attenborough film is less scary than it is sad, about a mentally ill man wrestling with his inner demons and finding them no easier to control when they’re in tangible form.
Suddenly in the Dark (1981)
Director: Go Yeong-nam
A married professor (Yoon Il-bong) goes on long trips, happens to have a photograph of a strange doll among his belongings, and eventually brings home the woman to whom the doll belongs (Lee Ki-seon) on the pretext of hiring her as his housemaid — all the signs point to him having an affair.
This Korean thriller adopts a kaleidoscopic effect when his wife Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae) sees, or imagines seeing, her husband and housemaid intertwined, representing the distortion of her perception. Is Seon-hee wrong about the infidelity? Or have her memories been fragmented and only pieced back together through systematic gaslighting? When her suspicion drives her to murder her housemaid, the recurring sight of her doll becomes a pointed accusation, a stain she can’t wash out. Is the doll, which finds its way back home even after being disposed of, out to exact revenge on Seon-hee? Or is the guilt taking a toll on her frazzled mind? Director Go Yeong-nam’s opaque camera lens, capturing Seon-hee’s dizziness and disorientation, leaves it ambiguous.
Child’s Play (1988)
Director: Tom Holland
There’s not much subtlety to a slasher film in which the opening stretch sees a dying serial killer (Brad Dourif) transfer his spirit into a doll — the force of the spell shattering every window pane in sight — but snuck into Child’s Play is an effective commentary on capitalism and consumer excess. Even before Chucky the doll winds up in the hands of a child, Andy (Alex Vincent), the brand to which it belongs has infiltrated every aspect of his life, from cereal to cartoons to sneakers. Andy even dresses identically to Chucky, the film contrasting the sweetness and innocence of a child with the evils of rampant and unchecked consumerism.
As the vengeful killer goes on a murder spree, the sight of a pint-sized, sentient assassin would be comical if not for how director Tom Holland mines terror from a recurring shot of a tiny hand emerging into view preceding a murder. By the end, the most potent image is that of childhood lost as Andy looks back sadly on his defeated, dismembered toy.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)
Director: Todd Haynes
Part documentary, part public service announcement, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story traces the rise of singer Karen Carpenter, her struggles with anorexia and her eventual death in 1983. While all the parts are performed by Barbie dolls instead of actors, the effect is far from dehumanising — this approach lets director Todd Haynes implicitly comment on the commodification and objectification associated with a life lived in the spotlight glare.
The film also becomes an indictment of an industry in which bodies and lives are manufactured and shaped to please public perception. Haynes succeeds in mining real human emotion from the dolls through the tremble of Karen’s hand as she raises a glass in toast or the heaving of her shoulders after a long night as her brother berates her. Throughout, he contrasts the painful messiness of her life with the sweet clarity of her voice.
Director: Sandor Stern
Pin is the tale of siblings Leon (David Hewlett) and Ursula Linden (Cynthia Preston), so devoid of parental love, they latch on to an inanimate object — their father’s life-sized anatomical doll, Pin. While Ursula eventually outgrows her childish delusions, Leon’s increased reliance on Pin coincides with the slow deterioration of his psyche. Unlike the other male protagonists on this list, he isn’t looking to a doll for female companionship, but for a father figure. There’s no ambiguity about whether Pin is alive or not, only the sad desperation that Leon needs him to be.
The doll itself is harmless until Leon begins projecting his darkest impulses onto him, Pin’s imagined voice seeping into his mind like a slow poison. This Sandor Stern horror film begins by examining the dysfunction of the nuclear family unit, gradually morphing into the unnerving story of not just the things we’d sacrifice for family, but the things we’d sacrifice family for.
Toy Story (1995)
Director: John Lasseter
Children must eventually outgrow their toys and it’s this existential fear that informs the John Lasseter animated film, in which a group of toys come alive every time their owner Andy (Donald Reignoux) leaves the room. They worry about Andy growing up — each new Christmas and birthday heralds the potential arrival of brand-new playthings that he’s sure to favour over them — but as the film progresses, also have a lot of maturing of their own to do. Sheriff doll Woody (Tom Hanks) must grapple with his insecurities when Andy is gifted the more high-tech space ranger toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Meanwhile Buzz, who initially perceives himself as a real space ranger and not a toy, must come to terms with realising he’s not who he thought he was. Even as its characters worry about getting left behind, this landmark Pixar film is a perfectly preserved snapshot of childhood, a time gone by.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Director: Craig Gillespie
Before director Craig Gillespie turned his hand to stories of wronged women (I, Tonya, Cruella, Pam & Tommy), he directed Lars and the Real Girl, a tragicomic examination of male loneliness. When the introverted Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) buys a sex doll off the internet for company, the film refrains from exploiting the more salacious possibilities of this premise. Instead, the backstory Lars invents for her — she’s shy, just like him; she’s in a wheelchair, which makes her reliant on him — points to a man attempting to forge a genuine connection, only with a synthetic doll.
If it’s not real, it can’t hurt, and Lars, still grappling with his mother’s death, has gotten good at putting up shields. Through the doll, however, he’s able to gradually integrate himself into his small-town community, revisit his childhood memories and ultimately heal the trauma that has defined his relationships so far.
Air Doll (2009)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Air Doll, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda and based on the manga Kuuki Ningyo, captures the loneliness of city life, in which dinners for one are routine and employees are replaceable. It’s in this city that inflatable sex dolls become the ideal companion — substitutes for real human contact that are unable to age, talk back or, crucially, leave.
When Nozomi the doll (Bae Doona) comes to life, however, the city through her eyes appears as a world of possibilities, a vista of everyday pleasures that so many take for granted. By letting us into her thoughts and feelings, the film grants her the very humanity her owner, and the other lecherous men she meets, deny her. As Nozomi begins to assert her autonomy and independence, the film becomes the coming-of-age story of a doll for whom the concept of ageing remains incomprehensible.
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Originally published: 20 July 2023