Everyone feels the need for intimacy, love and companionship. It can be a lifelong quest to obtain these ideals, and perhaps even harder to keep them. But what happens if you are not successful in your quest – or at least not in any conventional way? And what if the answer to these longings is so peculiar that understanding it requires an exercise in imagination and empathy most people find hard to bear?
«Watching Silicone Soul might make you feel uncomfortable at times.»
In her latest film Silicone Soul, director Melody Gilbert explores the lives and experiences of people who find love and comfort in human-size silicone dolls. But instead of characterising these people as weird and deviant (as perhaps many would), the film casts a non-judgmental eye on the lives of people who find it hard to be accepted by others. The result is a glimpse into a hidden world that is vulnerable and all about loneliness as well as the very primal human need to bond with others and to feel loved.
An exercise in human empathy
Silicone Soul is a mix of interviews, scenes from daily life and animated sequences that pose one single question: what meaning can a doll bring into someone’s life? This is a question that most people in the lives of Gilbert’s characters don’t have the time or courage to explore. The answer thus remains both a complex and multi-layered one, which turns Silicone Soul into an exercise in human empathy.
The non-conventional bond with dolls has previously been explored in other films, with different levels of empathy. This year’s Dream Girl – Oliver Schwarts’ touching short documentary – explores the daily life and intimacy of a man and his doll and serves as a good example of an empathic approach.
Another example is the fiction film Lars and the Real Girl (featuring Ryan Gosling) – a story of a man’s vulnerability, and a community that puts aside prejudice and awkwardness in order to play along with Gosling’s delusion. Everyone who watches the film would probably understand the doll as a reflection of what he longs for, but is unable to find, in a real person.
But the subject of men loving dolls is generally a goldmine for sensationalist articles and shows, like Guys and Dolls – an American TV documentary that digs for the deviant and the fetish in the stories of these men. The film features Davecat who lives with his wife and his mistress (both dolls). He also appears in Gilbert’s film, as well as in an episode of TLC’s My Strange Addiction.
Gilbert’s merit is not only in her gentle approach towards the world she explores, but also in her way of moving beyond the usual limits of the subject, looking into a wide range of human-doll relationships.
«Everyone who watches the film would understand the doll as a reflection of what he longs for, but is unable to find, in a real person.»
Gilbert looks at how silicon babies bring consolation to elderly patients with dementia, and how a silicon doll helped a couple through a rough time. She also looks at the ways these model-like dolls (perfectly proportioned and «beautiful») can be turned into various art forms. At least that is the case with Stacy Leigh – an artist that is fascinated by these dolls – who photographs them and explores her unfulfilled needs of female friendship through them.
Robots as future partners?
By experimenting with different angles, Silicone Soul changes the conversation about the interaction with human-surrogates – from understanding them exclusively related to sex – while also looking at the many emotional needs these dolls seem to fulfil. As new perspectives layer up, the camera breaks through the image of fantasy-like perfection that these dolls represent, while also revealing their textures and imperfections. The peeling silicone of their hands, the collapsing parts that need to be replaced – all this takes the focus away from the fetish and sex associated with them.
The focus on the imperfections of the dolls adds instead a sense of realness and endearment to the story. And just like their human partners are aging, the dolls are aging too.
Towards the end of the film, Silicone Soul touches on the subject of technology and the possibility of having human-looking robots as partners, adding the element of interaction to what is currently possible with a silicone doll. But the take on this feels rather unnecessary. The film does not build up around this particular theme, and this twist is somehow distracting.
In the end, Silicone Soul does not need this controversy because the film feels rich and well rounded without it. At the same time, watching the film might make you uncomfortable. It requires you to interpret what you see and to decide where you stand.
By the end of the film, however, you will not need a tag or a term to understand these people and their relationships. You will be caught up instead in the exercise of empathy – changing from a curious voyeur into someone who gets it.