Thursday, August 13, 2009

Breaking the Waves

Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) takes place in a remote village on the northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s. Although this was an era of social change, the townspeople might as well be living in the Middle Ages. In this village, only the men are allowed to speak in church or attend funerals, and a typical funeral sermon consists of the priest (Jonathan Hackett) sternly stating that the deceased is a sinner who deserves their place in hell. Most viewers are likely to identify with the progressive attitudes embodied by the heroine's empathetic sister-in-law and a young doctor at a nearby hospital. Reconciling and confounding both sides is Bess (Emily Watson), whose behavior poses a challenge not only to the unbending church elders but the more enlightened characters as well.

Bess, it has to be said, is retarded. In an early scene, her new husband, Jan (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), takes her to a children's movie, and she stares at the screen with her big, round eyes, utterly transfixed by it. Jan is an oil rig worker who spends weeks at a time offshore, but Bess, who loves him with an intensity bordering on madness, cannot bear to be parted with him a single second. (She counts down the days till his return on a calendar with childish drawings scribbled in the margins.) Her sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), doesn't like that Jan has so much power over Bess, and before he leaves for the rig, Dodo tells Jan that she doesn't trust him, articulating our own ambivalent feelings about him as viewers: His benign smile tells us he really loves Bess, but that doesn't mean he's good for her.

Bess has a simple, childlike belief in god. When she prays, she does both her voice and god's, like a child with an imaginary friend. However, her conception of god is as harsh and rigid as the church elders. (Accordingly, she uses a deep, stern voice when speaking for god.) Early in the film, one of Jan's buddies gets sent home with a sprained wrist, and Bess prays for god to send Jan home early. God asks her if she's sure that's what she wants, like a sinister genie in an Arabian Nights tale. And in a plot twist worthy of Fassbinder, Jan has an accident on the rig that paralyzes him from the neck down. Inevitably, Bess blames herself, although Dodo tries to explain to her it was just an accident--again, as if speaking for the viewer, or at least suggesting an alternative way of interpreting the world.

Up till this point, Bess and Jan's relationship has been entirely carnal. After his injury, he tells her to wear loose clothing when she comes to see him so he won't have to look at her body. Later, he suggests that Bess take a lover, since the townspeople would never let her divorce him, but Bess doesn't like this idea. Eventually, Jan (who's at this point whacked out on drugs) tells Bess that if he forgets about love, he'll die, so the only way to keep him alive is for Bess to sleep with other men, and tell him about it. Neither the church nor Dodo approve of what Bess does in following his instructions, but the difference is that Dodo and the local doctor, Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins), seem genuinely concerned for Bess' well being, while the church elders coldly expel her from the community for her "sins," as if to keep her from infecting the others. However, their empathy has its limits as well, and finally Dr. Richardson sees no other option but to put Bess in an institution, just as his predecessor did, which Jan agrees to, and Dodo, though clearly conflicted, tacitly goes along with.

I just finished reading Azar Nafisi's wonderful memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), in which she defines a villain as some one who lacks the capacity to truly see, and therefore empathize, with another person. (One of her favorite villains is an Iranian film censor who was literally blind.) The church elders are obviously villains in attempting to impose their rigid idea of morality on Bess, but Dodo doesn't completely see her, either. She tells Jan that she's feeble, to which Jan replies that she has more strength than any of them. (Later, Jan's line, "Love is a mighty force," finds its antithesis when Dodo tells Bess that, "Sickness is a mighty force.") Paradoxically, Bess' willingness to go to the absolute limit in following her love for Jan to its logical end is at once an indication of weakness, the power that Jan has over her, and as well as an indication of her strength.

Empathizing with a character like Bess is a real challenge for viewers. Her love for Jan is so intense that it kills her, yet in the end, Jan recovers completely. Can Bess' example be applied to real life? Only if you believe in miracles.

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