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Lars von Trier is, perhaps consciously and defiantly, one of the least-commercial brilliant directors in the world. His best-known movie, the 1991 Zentropa, and his earlier The Element of Crime both open with hypnotic voice-overs, seemingly daring us to succumb to sleep before the credits are even over. Nonetheless, if you don't mind snail-paced, surreal expressionism, both movies are almost irresistible. Even if you do mind deliberately slow movies -- and count me among those who do -- von Trier's densely packed visual style and rich, elliptical narratives are engrossing.
Even his most "accessible" work -- the Danish TV miniseries The Kingdom -- seemed designed to put off theatrical audiences. While the show was involving and hilariously funny, von Trier opted for theatrical distribution in the U.S. rather than the more logical television possibilities; as a result, viewers were asked to plunk down a double-admission price to sit through five hours of a subtitled Danish video transfer. Sure, it was worthwhile for those who bravely made the commitment of time, money, and energy. But who, other than diehard von Trier buffs (whose numbers are hardly legion), bothered to?
If the flatly lighted visual style and high-spirited high jinks of The Kingdom came as a shock to fans of the director's earlier films, his current offering, Breaking the Waves, will almost as surely defy their expectations. Visually, it combines the wobbly hand-held realism of The Kingdom with the sumptuous unreality of Zentropa. As a narrative it continually skews off in unexpected directions while homing in, ever so relentlessly, on its central concerns: whether God exists and what the hell He's up to if He does.
I'm not kidding. This is a dark, often funny walk through Ingmar Bergman turf, a territory so fraught with heavy-handed pretension and posturing that in most directors' hands it would have had me running screaming from the theater. Yet von Trier, through a combination of solid performances and carefully modulated tone, manages to avoid almost all the pitfalls of such a weighty subject.
Nearly two hours and 40 minutes long, Breaking the Waves is divided into seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is introduced with a beautiful, idealized landscape -- probably a combination of live-action cinematography and a glass painting -- and a rock and roll oldie. The opening is deceptively simple: We could be watching a trivial soap opera about the trials of young married couples. Chapter One, "Bess Gets Married," introduces Bess (Emily Watson), a sweet slip of a girl from a small town in Scotland. The town elders are grilling her before giving permission for her to wed Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an outsider who works the offshore oil rigs. The elders' severity is such that we might think we were watching a nineteenth-century period piece. But this is the early 1970s -- not that the rigid Calvinist villagers seem to have noticed.
At Bess and Jan's wedding, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), the widow of the bride's late brother, gives a moving speech about how special and wonderful Bess is. Right beneath the loving appreciation is the hint of something unspoken, some forbidden topic everyone on-screen understands but the audience doesn't. It's so subtle you might not even notice it.
Von Trier doesn't keep us in suspense for long: Near the beginning of Chapter Two, Bess is in church praying by herself, thanking God for finally giving her someone to love. Suddenly her expression changes, and we discover Bess isn't quite the simple village girl we had taken her for. Without giving everything away, let's simply say the term "religious psychosis" leaps to mind.
This initial revelation is soon compounded. When Bess grows frantic over Jan's imminent departure -- his job keeps him away for weeks at a time -- her stern mother warns her to stop acting up or it's back to tha hospital wi' ya. But Bess is convinced that her brief happiness has come as a favor from the frightening God she has been raised to worship, and that only God can save her from the agony of Jan's absence. When his first few weeks of work drive her to the edge of insanity -- if she fits any reasonable definition of sane in the first place -- she prays for his return. And, as in such classic moralistic horror tales as "The Monkey's Paw," she gets her wish, at a terrible price.
More details would spoil some of the experience of watching Breaking the Waves. Suffice it to say that the above description takes us only about a third of the way through the story. As reality becomes more and more grim, so does Bess's religious obsession make more and more outrageous demands on her.
Despite the film's ironic view of Bess's beliefs, the plot bizarrely unfolds in a manner that tends to affirm the town's horrible religious ideology. Bess has been taught authoritarian gibberish more horrifying and rigid than the most fire-and-brimstone terrors one is likely to encounter in the intransigent backwoods church in America. Yet after carefully straddling the fence throughout, von Trier chooses to end the film on a simplistic, greeting-card image of faith. Like the village elders, he seems to be validating the existence of God -- but it's the domineering, judgmental, vengeful God of the most hidebound Protestant sect.
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