This is a film that can never leave me, however uncomfortable and traumatized I felt after watching it. Lars Von Triers’ distinguished style is so seductive that I can barely keep his films away from me and this one is the film that brought him international acclaim and started Emily Watson’s incredible career. I find his natural look to his films with the handheld camera and the real-life locations beautiful and haunting in how he’s capturing real life without exaggerating or coloring it. The chapter headings with the CGI-rendered landscapes and the 70s pop songs playing over bring out a fairy tale-like quality to the otherwise bleak and downbeat realism of the life of Bess MacNeil.
Emily Watson brings out frailty and innocence in her portrayal Bess that she’s a character we can feel for and pity because she is a radical break-away from the harsh and overbearing authority of her town elders in their cold, oppressive religious manners. Her love for Jan and acceptance of his hip and secular life from outside of her town, that he shares with his group of rowdy friends, makes her a more heartfelt and open-minded person than the locals. Notice how indifferent and grouchy the guests at her and Jan’s wedding are, which is why Bess, her sister Dodo, Jan and his friends are so effective at inspiring a radical break from the cold social atmosphere. Dodo herself is concerned about Bess’ marriage, but not in a way that makes her mean as their mother and grandfather, just the older sister trying to watch out for her because she knows how easily hurt she’s been in the past. It made the relationship between the sisters very heartfelt and compassionate with how no matter much Bess takes risks, Dodo is the only one in the family who shows her emotional support.
It does become more painful to watch Bess suffer the more she goes hysterical when Jan has to go away to work at the oil rig and keeps stalling time to wait for his calls and to pray to God for his return. It shows how vulnerable she is for all her sweet nature because she has no strength to fend for herself if there is no one to be there for her. The way she screams at the waves crashing in on her at the beach releases all the anxiety out of her painful wait for Jan’s return, which then drives her to desperation in praying to God for Jan to come home sooner than later. She gets more than she bargained for when Jan is hurt in an accident on the rig and is brought back in a paralyzed state, which makes her feel guilty of what she prayed for and wants to devote her time to taking care of him. When he requests from her that she make love to other men and tell him about it for his own sexual satisfactions, it puts her in an even more vulnerable spot because it’s not in her nature to be promiscuous, yet she believes this is the key to making him better and prays for strength from God to carry this out.
Where I felt most uncomfortable for Bess at this point is that she was turning herself into a victim by selling herself to older men and risking their perverse treatment of her frail and innocent body, especially when she goes to a ship out in the bay and is attacked in the cabin by a rough and creepy sailor (played with a demonic presence by horror legend Udo Kier) with a knife and is forced to flee. What’s worse is that the locals are becoming aware of her sinful activities and when she speaks out in church, which is forbidden for women to do, she is cast out and treated as an outsider. As much as this is a horrifying change for her, she’s always been an outsider to the community with how her spirited and child-like behavior brought out concern from the locals, only this time it brings her rejection and abuse, least of all by a group of sadistic kids who throw rocks at her. Nevertheless, her suffering and her radical decisions are what make her more likable than the rest of the town and worth supporting for her goodness to do the unthinkable for the love of Jan.
Although the life of Bess is painful to experience, the surroundings of that life make it the film more beautiful with the attention that Von Trier gives to the mountainous valleys and the cloudy weather, which brings a gritty reality to the film. He himself has dealt with depression in his life, so his moody and dreary approach to the film embodies those feelings he has, and the isolated, mountainous regions of Scotland and drizzly weather are fitting to capture that gloomy state of mind. When Bess stands alone on a hilly road under the cloudy sky, in her scarf and cap, she stands as a loner, surrounded by the cold and dreary climate, but one with a lot of spirit and innocence. It shows how we all feel depression in our lives, but we try to live through it by finding the beauty in what society cannot see beyond their narrow-minded views. She still preserves her goodness as she makes faces at a rabbit and prances around on the road, even though she has entered a dark chapter in her life.
The result of her actions in the end have severe consequences for what she does to heal her one true love, yet they leave an inspiration and admiration for her innocence and open mind that her community is too blind and cold to appreciate. I have big problems with how naive and broken Bess is portrayed to be as she suffers and keeps thinking that God wants her to suffer for Jan’s sake because she hardly shows any sensibility and acknowledgement of what she gets herself into, although that is probably Von Trier’s intention to make her a kind of martyr who can bear the scars of cruelty and persecution and still accomplish some goodness in the end. After she dies from being raped and beaten by the evil sailor, Jan has miraculously recovered, but the church is unkind about how they want to attend to her funeral by burying her next to the bodies of people they have condemned to Hell. It turns in an opposite direction when Dodo speaks out the elders them in support of her sister and tells them “None of you has any right to condemn Bess to Hell!” which really shows the strength of someone in the town who can rise against the oppression of the town for the love of her sister. When Jan and his friends steal her body from the morgue to throw into the sea, it’s touching as Jan tearfully makes his good-byes to her and drops her into the water, yet it’s merciful and loving that he’s giving his wife a burial outside the limits of the wretched town. When it comes to the very last scene where Jan and his friends hear church bells and look up in joy as we see a pair of CGI-ridden church bells ringing from the clouds. It declares that Bess is at peace and that he good spirit will never be forgotten. It’s where fantasy breaks through reality and it’s rather extreme to put in for an otherwise realistic film.
However, Von Trier wasn’t setting out to make an entirely rational film because he was making it a love story about sacrifice and the miracles that take place. The recovery of Jan is treated as a miracle and the church bells in the sky are the ultimate miracle, however fanciful they are, because Von Trier clearly wanted to do everything irrational and fanciful to make a strong point of Bess’ goodness from her suffering and it leaves the film with an enlightening and bittersweet impact about human suffering and the goodness that comes out of it. It will never leave me because Von Trier knows how to fill a film with so many contradictions and radical ideas that are debatable and unforgettable in his films about human nature and the traumatizing trials we endure to make a difference in life. The music of Bach that is heard in the closing credits leaves a bleakly beautiful tone to the ending as it represents the tragedy and salvation of the film’s spiritually-themed story and preserves the memory of Bess as we see shots from the film of Emily Watson and the rest of the cast.