Divine Intervention

The strength of my films is that they are easy to mock.

--Lars von Trier

When a film gets as much advance praise as Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, it has a hard time meeting expectations. And since the simple but surprising plot of this Greek tragedy-style love story has already been divulged in countless raves (this paper's included), I'll try to conduct this review with as little plot summary as possible. Nevertheless, I'd advise anyone who plans on seeing the film to quit reading this immediately, and instead catch the three earlier von Trier works--The Kingdom, The Element of Crime, and Zentropa--playing at Oak Street Cinema from Wednesday through Sunday. Suffice it to say that Breaking the Waves is about vulnerability; the less prepared one is to deal with it, the better.

On the other hand, it's possible to anticipate some of the twists and turns in this archetypal melodrama and still be overwhelmed by its aesthetic spontaneity: the way its handheld
camerawork, grainy widescreen images, and
jump-cut editing, in combination with the mercurial expressions of its actors and the perverse contortions of its plot, create a two-and-a-half-hour movie in which every instant seems to elicit a different feeling, or several at the same time. A sort of emotional disaster film, Breaking the Waves is the definition of cinematic excess, being at once spiritual and ridiculous, beautiful and devastating, realistic and larger than life. The Danish, 41-year-old von Trier is a consummate movie-lover who equates the power of cinema with a kind of religion, and designs a flamboyant exercise of that power with a film that begins at a visceral peak and continues to ascend as it goes along--in the end arriving at an image that is literally from on high.

Two of the fragile creatures below are Bess (Emily Watson) and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), newlyweds living in a strict Calvinist fishing village in early '70s Scotland. Bess, a sensitive Scottish maid, and Jan, a burly, laid-back Swedish oil-rigger, enjoy a few days of sexual bliss until tragedy strikes--and proceeds to strike again and again. As this relationship is put to the most severe physical and psychological test, the film becomes a study of fate's cruel effects on those of us who struggle to control that fate. The epitome of the almighty auteur, von Trier pulls the strings decisively, exercising absolute power over his fictional world. He emphasizes our fragility by contriving various terrible accidents; by creating a puritanical, patriarchal village in which women are forbidden to attend funerals or speak in church; and by making Bess a "susceptible" womanchild who feels everything with the utmost intensity.

Bess reacts to her separation from Jan by wailing at the top of her lungs, as if in protest of God's will. And in order to reforge her connection with her beloved, she suffers guilt, pays penance, and comes to the most ironic sort of grace. Despite this struggle, it's a sign of Bess's resilience that she repeatedly questions her maker(s), conducting conversations with God in which she answers herself in His stern voice. One of the ways von Trier opens his film to interpretation is by placing Bess's faith, sainthood, martyrdom, and sanity along a continuum. "Showing what you feel is certainly no disease," Bess's psychiatrist (Adrian Rawlins) tells her, although the townsfolk would no doubt disagree. Among the film's subsidiary tragedies is the fact that Bess has internalized her village's method of punishment for such transgressions as happiness and passion.

It's a convention of melodrama to pit the feelings of characters against a violently repressive society, although Breaking the Waves goes a step further by drawing a connection between Bess's prayers and the film's own exacting narrative. Her faith, and that of other characters in the film, occasionally proves strong enough to alter the course of things. In fact, the way in which Jan, Bess, the village puritans, the viewer, God, and von Trier all seem to compete for the power to direct the plot's course gives the film a fascinating self-reflexivity, calling attention to the fundamentally manipulative nature of cinema.

Von Trier may put his characters and the viewer through the ringer, yet his empathy toward both is unmistakable. Still, to watch Breaking the Waves is to periodically doubt its intentions--and then to reckon with the irony that the most believable narratives are those which, unlike von Trier's, try to keep themselves out of our sight. In any case, this is a great movie for how it works the gut and the heart rather than the head. Von Trier closes the gap between the viewer and the screen here--pulling the camera so close to his heroine that the image regularly goes out of focus. Accordingly, Watson's soul-baring performance seems to reach beyond the frame, blurring the lines between acting and being as
provocatively as the film blends cinema verité and the most florid kitsch.

Ultimately, Breaking the Waves embraces the virtues of classic Hollywood more than foreign art cinema--note how von Trier delivers a conventional musical montage of Jan's friends trying to lighten his spirits (to the tune of T. Rex's "Hot Love"), or how, in classic soap-opera fashion, Bess's skeptical best friend (Katrin Cartlidge) ends up becoming her husband's nurse. But as the director leaves room for some disturbingly ambiguous character motivations that we're forced to fill in for ourselves, the question becomes: How truly can a movie know its characters' feelings, or ours? Near the end of the film, there's a Hitchcock-style epilogue in which one character is required to testify about what he has seen, and it's telling that his summation can't begin to approximate the drama of what we have witnessed in Breaking the Waves. And for that matter, neither can a review. CP

Breaking the Waves starts Friday at
Lagoon Cinema.

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