Of all the films people who like the kinds of films I like seem to like, Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves is the one I have the most trouble with. I don’t see the appeal of this film. I find the basic premise kind of absurd, that Jan would cope with his new physical limitations by ordering his wife to live out his sexual fantasies for him. But, I could easily suspend disbelief for that if it were done in an interesting way. I find the entire cast fairly one dimensional and extremely stereotypical, and I find Von Trier’s approach to moral questions in all his films very dogmatic without any tolerance for nuance.
In many of Von Trier’s films, I find except for the main character, people don’t have much of a mind of their own. They strictly adhere to the reflexive judgments of whatever role they’ve been cast in. They’re not even nasty in a greedy or self interested way, they’re just robotically malicious in their conspiracy to destroy the main character. I get the impression from films like Europa and Dogville that he intends his films to be taken as pure fantasies, which you could argue invalidates any criticisms of being unrealistic. But the moral systems of the films are always so simplistic, the films don’t end up having any allegorical value either.
I’d really like to hear people argue in favor of Breaking The Waves and other Von Trier films, and tell me what I’m missing.
Von Trier does that kind of stuff with people. I have never really understood why some people are so fond of Element of crime, when the film “loses” its line within the first 40 minutes and the ending is probably the most predictable I have seen. Some folks are just in love with his visuals and the style of his characters though.
Agreed. Although I love at least three of his films – Dogville, Dancer in the Dark and AntiChrist – I’m tired in general of his female martyrs. Breaking the Waves actually felt nasty in tone, there was nothing deep or complex about Jan’s desire nor his wife’s compliance with his degrading demands. At least in the latter film he seems to be poking fun at his own tendencies towards misogyny and reliance on female sacrifice. However, it should be said that the men in his films are also horribly pathetic creatures and in many ways they are often awed and helpless in the face of female sexual power. Von Trier said that the female characters in his films are actually him but it begs the question why a female body is consistently figured as best to represent his most wretched, humiliating, abusive and hopeless situations and psychic states.
I find the basic premise kind of absurd, that Jan would cope with his new physical limitations by ordering his wife to live out his sexual fantasies for him.
I felt this way on the first viewing, but on the second viewing, I focused on these scenes, and my take is that Jan didn’t want Bess to throw away her life by taking care of him and being faithful to him. (There’s a talk he has with Bess’ sister-in-law.) That’s still not entirely satisfying, but it’s better than the explanation of vicarious sex.
I find the entire cast fairly one dimensional and extremely stereotypical, and I find Von Trier’s approach to moral questions in all his films very dogmatic without any tolerance for nuance.
Hmm, I guess this is fair critique, but consider that Bess’ character—this person who talks to God and has so much faith she’s willing to sacrifice her body and life for it—is not an easy one to play convincingly. You could easily find her character laughable and her performance terrible. But that’s not the case—at least for me. What helps is one’s religious perspective, I think. For me, as a Christian—especially one who likes Kierkegaard (he advocated living one’s faith out instead of intellectualizing it, among other things)—I loved her character, and I could relate to her.
Furthermore, this idea of faith versus dogma is rarely seen in films. I think Ordet is the only other film that comes to mind that deals with this issue—especially at the level of filmmaking. If anything, i could see someone saying it’s too much of a rip-off of Ordet as a criticism (not something I really agree with).
Breaking the Waves actually felt nasty in tone, there was nothing deep or complex about Jan’s desire nor his wife’s compliance with his degrading demands.
For me, Bess did what she did, not because of Jan, but because of her faith. That might seem twisted, but I believe the film is exploring this notion of faith versus reason (even faith versus ethics—something that Kierkegaard touches on, too). Utlimately, faith is about passion and conviction, not reason. A faith based on intellect is not really real. One’s faith must be lived. The ultimate test of this is when one feels called to act in a way that is immoral. This is the dilemma Abraham faced when God asks him to sacrifice Isaac. How can God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac—when murder is wrong—not to mention killing your own innocent son! But Abraham’s faith trumps reason and ethics. Abraham is blessed for this faith. In a way Bess is blessed, too. Yes, she dies, but we can infer she’s with God (the Bells in the sky). Jan also gets better.
(BTW, although it’s one of my favorite films of all-time, I don’t know if I say I enjoy it.)