Imaginary Brazilian Revolution

Brazil is a state of carefree serenity. Brazil is attained by forsaking sanity.

Return . . . I will . . . to old . . . Brazil.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

~Breaking the Waves~

When watching a few other Lars Von Trier movies, (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville,) I almost felt as though I was receiving some sort of punishment, like a higher power was striking me with divine discomfort, holding me personally responsible for the ugliness of the films, (for I truly enjoyed them both.) Breaking the Waves, to me, was much less shocking and exploitative than the others and with a much subtler delivery. It was released in 1996, several years earlier than the other two films, so maybe Von Trier just hadn't finely tuned his ability to provoke.
However, Breaking the Waves, with it's religious subtext and a pristine conscience toward faith and it's ability to counter the scowls of the worldly, was superior to the two later films.
The basic premise of the film is that a naive girl brought up in an orthodox village decides to marry an outsider with whom she falls in love. The simple girl, named Bess, and her newfound husband Jan discover the joys of intimate love and love-making. But in an industrial accident Jan is paralyzed, and Bess is left to take care of him. One day Jan requests that she begin making love to other men and telling him about her encounters, that he will be happier and his condition will improve if she complies.
A compelling attribute of Bess' faith is the way she prays. She delivers her part of the prayer in a small, childlike voice, and replies in the voice of God, patriarchal and strong. When she asks God about Jan's request, the powerful voice exclaims, "I have commanded that you honor your husband."
So Bess begins making uneasy love to men that she meets. Many of the scenes are difficult to watch because you feel terribly for her. Through her faith though she begins to see progress in Jan's condition. Her demeanor becomes like a professional prostitute as the movie runs on, seeing every man as an opportunity to help the condition of her beloved husband improve. But as she sees him growing stronger, the community around her begins to persecute her and deny her privileges, and children even begin throwing rocks at her and calling her "tart" and "whore." After a bad sexual encounter upon an oil tanker she stumbles up to the church and collapses. When the priest, the supposed example of Christianity, sees who it is who has fainted, he walks along as if he had never seen her.
It was a great movie Tom. It really was. 5 stars in my book. I'll tell you how it ends if you'd like. Let me know.
"Von Trier makes us wonder what kind of operas Nietzsche might've written."
--Roger Ebert


At 2/25/2006 7:49 PM, Blogger Tyler said...

Sorry about the double post.

At 2/25/2006 10:24 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I fixed the double post. It's good enough that it deserves to exist in double, but order must be maintained.

As I read your synopsis I wondered if an alternate reading of the film might be feasible. Could Von Trier be calling the faithful whores and (the non-existent) God a pimp? In effect, saying that adherents to religion warp their lives, submitting themselves to the supposed degradation and pain of authoritarianism for the sake of false hope (Jan's impossible healing=non-existent heaven)? I am really interested to know how it ends. It has content that I avoid (frank sexuality/nudity), so you won't be spoiling anything for me.

I think the reason I thought of an interpretation of the film that was less charitable to believers is because I'm suspicious of Von Trier. Which is totally unfair of me since I've only seen his Dancer in the Dark, which I didn't find objectionable; but I know he's anti-American and he's from one of those godless little European countries so I expect him to antagonize me.

I wish there was a good way to convey tongue-in-cheekness in print, but just to be clear, referring to Denmark as a "godless little Euorpean country" is a light-hearted attempt at humor. I hate that I just wrote that last sentence.

At 2/26/2006 9:23 AM, Blogger Tyler said...

I hate that you had to write the disclaimer too Tom. Me too. What is this world coming to?
The ending should dispel your concerns that Von Trier was treating the faithful as whores to a non-existent God. Here it comes.
Okay, so one of the recurring themes throughout the films, whenever one of the elders of the church is involved is that there are no bells on the church. At one point one of them comments, "God doesn't need our music." Well, after receiving a terrible beating upon the tanker and seeing Jan make significant improvement, Bess happily returns to the same boat again. It's an ominous sort of scene while the little dinghy is slowly taking her to meet her fate which seems perfectly clear to everybody. There is no score to the movie, and the only time you hear any music at all is in short intermissions between each chapter of the film, Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" being among the selections. But they ride the boat to the oil tanker in silence. The next scene shows Bess in a hospital bed, beaten and broken. Her sister who had been one of Jan's most virulent critics, and who even tried to have Bess locked up because she must be insane to follow the wishes of her husband, defends the faith and goodness of Bess to the doctors and to her religious family as Bess falls asleep into death.
Now, a few months or maybe years later, we see Jan, (played SO well by Stellan Skarsgard, by the way,) walking tall, working on a boat. One of his friends comes to him and says, "Jan! You need to come outside and take a look at this." Jan follows him to an outer deck of the ship where there are hundreds of sailors standing around looking up at the sky. Jan looks to the sky, and in direct contrast to the dogme 95, there are two huge bells hanging effortlessly in the sky, ringing loudly and joyously. Jan begins to cry, and the movie ends. It was excellent.

At 2/26/2006 11:13 AM, Blogger Tom said...

Fascinating. You have to admire the bigness of Von Trier's ideas and ambition. Dogville is one of those movies that I feel like I need to see even if I don't want to very much.


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