Rated R, which is surprising because it is the only Lars von Trier movie that I can think of that doesn't sport an NC-17. That's a broad stroke, but it is kind of deserved. Like many von Trier films, the amount of sexuality is overwhelming. There's nudity and sex acts performed throughout the film. The movie really plays around with blasphemous concepts, coupled with taking advantage of the mentally ill. The protagonist also deals with sexual assault, leading to her eventual death. But, R, I guess...
DIRECTOR: Lars von Trier
I don't like Lars von Trier. There. I said it. Anything I say after this --especially if you like the work of von Trier --lacks any credibility. You can write me off. It might be that I don't get it or that I'm too sensitive. But von Trier's work always leaves me criminally depressed. There's bleak and then there's the work of Lars von Trier. And with Breaking the Waves, that's as optimistic as he gets. If you look at my MPAA section, that's a pretty low bar to meet and it is still horribly, horribly bleak. But, and this is me going out on a limb, Breaking the Waves, for all of its misery, might be the most watchable von Trier movie for me because it at least makes the protagonist incredibly sympathetic.
I have so many thoughts that might not lead anywhere, so bear with me. Lars von Trier creates these worlds where people are just awful to each other and it tends to be manifested in sex acts. As much as they are erotic, there's something fundamentally unerotic about the movies that von Trier makes. The human body comes across as base and animalistic. Despite the fact that Bess is always motivated by the concept of love, every sex act she does outside of the initial sex acts between Jan and herself are debasing and painful. In the same way that I don't enjoy Eli Roth torture porn, I view Lars von Trier. Bess is this wholesome woman who is somewhere on the spectrum. Part of her is DID, but often she is treated as simplistic, not unlike Lenny in Of Mice and Men. There's this question about Jan as a character which I think von Trier wants me to believe: Is Jan taking advantage of Bess? I'm not adding that idea. That is there in the script. Dodo, before Jan's accident, accuses Jan of taking advantage of a poor girl. He denies it and it seems like the movie ends with Jan genuinely mourning the death of an innocent girl. Okay.
But the movie, on the whole, is about this perversion of what courage is supposed to look like. It is trying to paint Bess as a saint because she is a creature defined by sacrifice. When we think of sainthood, it is listening to God and putting the needs of others in front of the self. But this isn't some normal act. This is Bess making a bargain with an evil God who wants her to feel misery and sexual humiliation for the sake of a game. It's why I always kind of feel odd about the Book of Job. Old Testament God loves testing folks. But even Old Testament God had a limit. When Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac, the angel stops him from completing the act. The idea behind that is that God would never ask his people to do anything sinful in his name. I would like to stress that this is a movie about God. I don't care if you could chalk up a lot of the moments to mental illness. There is a point in the movie where von Trier makes his case on the behalf of God. When the movie was cryptic about the existence of God, there might have been something to talk about. But between the miracle that is Jan's recovery and the bells at the end, the case for God is clear. He's real and he's absolutely awful.
Why? Why do we need that? Lars von Trier paints the faithful of this movie as absolutely awful people. They are monsters, especially in this little village. And we aren't really given anything to compare it to. We could take Dodo's faith life as a healthy pace car for what faith should be, but Dodo's role isn't one of religious common sense. Her role is to both be an outsider for this community as a whole and to act as a foil to Bess when it comes to losing one's husband. Dodo isn't full fleshed out enough to pick up the notion of religious tolerance in the film. She passively resists the patriarchal ideals of this church as opposed to actively fighting for Bess. Part of that comes from her femininity, but more of it comes from the notion that she isn't active in the Church. She's a member of the parish, but she doesn't face the same struggles that Bess does. Bess, because of her innocence, starts the movie as this lynchpin of the role of faith. She prays and works for the betterment of the church. So when the church betrays her, as foreshadowed by the first funeral, it is meant to be heartbreaking.
But that's a little unfair, isn't it? While it is stressed that the church in this small village is filled with religious zealots, there's no healthy alternative in this small town. Even more so, Jan is oddly cool with the standards upheld by the clergy of this town. He almost becomes a gawker at that funeral, not at all trying to stop the fire and brimstone philosophies that the clergy lords over the people of this town. He almost enjoys it, like a secret club that only allows men to flex control over women. It's pretty gross. And yet, Bess needs this in her life because she believes that she is directly speaking to God. And, as much as I have a problem with the portrayal of the faithful in this movie as bigoted maniacs, Bess's relationship with God is somehow worse.
This movie had two potential endings. Bess had to go on the ship, knowing that she was going to be brutalized. I don't think we could cut that ending out. But it came down to a binary. In one scenario, Jan never recovers and that Bess really did deal with potential schizophrenia or DID. (I know that they are different things, but I don't know if she literally becomes the voice of God or it is a voice in her head that speaks to her.) In that scenario, it heavily implies that there is no God. All of the cruelty of this village are without merit and you would be a fool to believe in the notion of God. It would seem like the other ending is more cynical. In the version where Jan is cured, which is the actual ending, God likes torturing Bess. Because Jan is cured and the bells ring through the heavens, God is happy with Bess's sacrifice and wanted her to do all of these horrible things to herself, using Jan as a hostage. I suppose that there is another, less Occam's Razor way of looking at this and say that God was viewing a mentally ill woman do all these things that he didn't want her to do and wanted to celebrate her for trying to be faithful. But in that scenario, there's that fine line about when a miracle is necessary.
I just don't like this kind of stuff. While the soundtrack and the use of chapters really does help the film, why do I want to watch such misery? In the world of Breaking the Waves, it's saying that everyone but the mentally ill are sadists and that God is a sadist as well. Even the "good" people of the movie are problematic. The doctor, for all of his moral grounding, professes his love for Bess. That's wildly inappropriate. Is it because she tried seducing him and now he's all screwed up? Dodo, who is a tragic character in her own right, often says horrible things to Bess. Yeah, she does it for her own good, but there are things that she should and shouldn't mess with. The notion of calling Bess "stupid" is more weaponized than it would be for anyone else and it is a moment where a line was crossed. How can I celebrate anything in this movie? It's so bleak and I know it is the least bleak of anything that I've seen come from Lars von Trier. For a guy who likes really miserable cinema, there is a line crossed when it comes to von Trier.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.