Friday, June 14, 2013

BREAKING THE WAVES (Lars von Trier, 1996, Denmark)

Never Underestimate the Power of Magical Thinking

Bess McNeill is a lonely beautiful young woman filled with a childlike fascination towards life, discovering the joys of her sexuality as she explores the naked unexplored terrain of her body, her heart aching to love and to be loved, but poisoned by the cruel tyranny of the Church. She marries Jan, an outsider to her small zealous community, and though their relationship has been brief it seems to be deep and profound. 

Lars von Trier films with a hand-held digital camera in realistic settings where the background sounds often overwhelm the dialogue and the ambient light degrades the image into jagged darkness and overblown whites, desaturating the color palette like a home movie. This creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy, which strengthens the narrative and connects us to Bess and Jan’s ordeal. We become part of their environment, active in the drama, emotionally invested in Bess’s heartbreaking predicament. Trier then structures the film into seven distinct chapters allowing the viewer to pause and step backwards into an objective vantage point. When Jan is paralyzed we experience the unselfish love that Bess has for her new husband, as she is willing to care for him and not leave his bedside. Through a haze of medication and despair, Jan asks her to consent to sexual encounters with other men and describe these acts to him: crippled, he cannot appease her physical desires and must live vicariously through these experiences. Thus begins Bess' magical thinking, as she sees Jan improve with each encounter then descend towards death when her willpower waivers. 

Bess prays to an insane god who brings violence and chaos into her life because she deserves it, her punishment far outweighs any imaginary sin. But this god is only her own irrational voice, condemning her as wicked in a religion where women don’t speak, second-class denizens of their perverse Reformation. Bess struggles to do what is right: to save Jan’s life she sacrifices the sanctity of her own body to appease this Hellish god as she believes he is getting better the more she suffers. As Bess’s coffin is surrender to the hard unforgiving earth and eternally damned by her Church, Jan proves his love as the ocean’s waves embrace her body carrying it to a final peaceful rest. The mysterious sound of ringing bells eases Jan’s burden and begins to heal his grievous wounds. 

Final Grade: (A)