I've Always Been Stupid, But I'm Good At This: Breaking The Waves (1996)

Regardless of your opinion of Lars Von Trier as a filmmaker and a human being in general, it is hard to deny his cinematic presence.  The Danish auteur exists in his own world of filmmaking that focuses on the depravity of human existence its failure to advance forward in even the most basic scenarios.  Like the late Italian director Passolini, Von Trier's works are on the farthest outskirts of what is acceptable in filmmaking, and his  mid-nineties masterpiece Breaking The Waves is certainly no exception.  Although it is considerably less brash and abrasive than his later works, it is a tough film to handle and its minimalist leanings, excluding chapter screens, make it difficult for the viewer to find any sense of comfort in the films two plus hour narrative.  It is a film of desperation that offers no resolution, apart from a vague implication of something better in the afterlife, but as Von Trier makes blatantly apparent, this afterlife is restricted for only the most saintly of persons and that the general population is full of "sinners" whose own selfishness and debased behaviors assure that they will forever rot alone in darkness, with no sense of self-worth.  These ideals, paired with a blistering cinema verite style, spurred by Von Trier's Dogme 95 movement, create a film that is so poetically desperate that it borders carefully between being inescapably good and infinitely unwatchable.

A concise epic of sorts, Breaking The Waves follows the seemingly mundane life of a mentally troubled woman named Bess McNeil (Emily Watson) who is preparing for a marriage to a man named Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgard).  This would be rather normal, were it not fro Bess's close ties to a devoutly religious group who appears to have secluded themselves to a small community on an indiscriminate English isle.  Despite a resounding disapproval from the village elders Bess continues with her marriage and enjoys a lovely wedding day with the rockstaresque Jan.  It is late into their wedding day that Bess demands Jan make love to her in a church bathroom, which results in Bess's sexual awakening and the subsequent issue at the center of the entire narrative.  Viewers are now shown the true severity of Bess's mental illness, particularly her grand delusions that she hears the voice of God.  Bess, despite being ever thankful to God for her gift of Jan's love, is reminded via the voices in her head that the lord can give anything he takes away.  Soon after this "discussion" with God, Bess is informed of Jan's injury at his job on an offshore oil rig, assuming fault for being too carnal in her desires, Bess makes it her goal to do whatever is necessary to rejuvenate her ailing husband.  Unfortunately for Bess, Jan's injury has caused him to display his own set of mental issues which include an unrestrained sexual desire and he demands that Bess goes out and has sex and returns to tell him about her experiences.  Jan believes that by doing so he will be able to obtain sexual gratification tantamount to their previous relationships.  Sadly, Bess's inability to understand the seriousness of such actions and the depravity of male sexuality result in her murder at the hands of pirates who molest and then kill the woman.  Jan, upon recovering, realizes the errors of his mental incapacitation and arrives at Bess's funeral in time to remind the elders that they are incapable of judging her actions and that she lived a far more sanctified life than any of them could claim.  The film closes with an image of bells ringing in the sky, implying that the late Bess now shared her joyous ways in heaven and that those remaining were left to live a worthless and meaningless existence away from the ethereal joys of heaven.

Von Trier is not one to shy away from criticizing society, his work Dogville, my personal favorite by the director, takes on the issue of whether or not corrupt individuals deserve to live and at what point do individuals claim the right to execute those who have done wrong by them.  While Dogville ends on a very disparaging note, Breaking The Waves is slightly more optimistic.  This is of note given that as a director Von Trier has become considerably bleaker with each film that he makes, often attacking other directors for their inability to remain relevant, which occurs most notably in The Five Obstructions.  Regardless, Breaking The Waves focuses on the problems of sexual repression, particularly as they relate to religion.  Von Trier makes it rather obvious that Bess's own instabilities are a result of both her mental illness, which the village ignores given its rather impure nature and her confusion as to what constitute love another fault of the suppressed teachings of her cult like religious group.  This becomes an even greater problem when she faces an individual like Jan whose understanding of sexuality is completely liberated and sees it as nothing more than a physical act that is easily began and even quicker to end.  This disconnect helps to explain why Bess would agree to such absurd requests on the part of Jan, her lack of knowledge on sexuality leads her to assume that infidelity is permissible, and in this instance even ideal as it provides her husband with happiness.  It is obvious that if Bess were provided with a better understanding of sexuality, as opposed to being left completely ignorant to its existence that she would have avoided the issue altogether.  The film ends implying Bess's innocence and dismisses her as being forgiven, while the remaining group, Jan included, are left to ponder their own failure and acts of repression which led to the untimely death of such a loving woman.  It is a convoluted critique of sexual oppression, but a critique nonetheless and in this case, I have to applaud Von Trier for trying.

This DVD is rather hard to come by, but I strongly encourage viewing the film.  It is a challenging, yet rewarding experience and if you can afford a copy buy one for yourself and feel free to send me a copy as well.

1 comment:

  1. whoa! i have this DVD and had no idea it was that expensive! nice! even though i wont ever sell it.

    i always felt this was Lars Von Trier's version of 'a woman under the influence'. such a tear jerker. proof that von trier does have a soul haha.