PRINT November 1996


THERE WERE REALLY TWO melodramas. The first was called Breaking the Waves, a new film by Lars von Trier; it was scheduled to show at Cannes. The second revolved around luring this notoriously phobic director out of Denmark; he was scheduled to show at Cannes, too. But getting him on a plane to fly to the South of France was impossible—planes, he reasoned, are late, crowded, blow up, crash, and have windows that don’t open. Planes were out. That left two options: trains and automobiles. Last-minute claustrophobia killed the train idea (more nonopening windows), while the thought of potentially spending hours trapped in European holiday traffic proved too much to bear. In the end, the first melodrama made it to Cannes; the second played only in Denmark. If you ask von Trier, he’ll tell you that without his personal Sturm and Drang there would have been no drama for the screen: “Making a film is incredibly hard . . . like a birth trauma, some kind of constriction I have to pass through before I can take any pleasure in it. . . . Breaking the Waves and The Kingdom were a huge pleasure to make. But then a reaction sets in: the phobias . . . which I used to be able to control, are now flourishing like mad.”’

That’s the director’s cut, but there were a couple of others floating around as well. One has it that when von Trier realized Breaking the Waves would likely lose the Palme d’Or to Mike Leigh’s crowd-pleasing Secrets and Lies (which showed on day two of the festival), he invented all of the foregoing to cover a fit of pique. Another has it that he actually got the Grand Jury Prize instead of the Palme d’Or because his paralyzing fears prevented him from showing up on the Côte d’Azur. It doesn’t really matter which version you believe, the point is that people have come to expect this sort of behavior from Denmark’s top filmmaker.

For years, von Trier’s been billed as an enfant terrible, but this reputation isn’t based solely on prima donna behavior: his control-freak impulses and myriad phobias are those of a latter-day auteur who specializes in the kind of films that play around the edges of genre movies. At once coldly formal and just plain creepy, they’re marked by such generally unfashionable concerns as moral dilemmas, the role, or lack thereof, of God in day-to-day life, and similarly unanswerable onto-theological questions. The Element of Crime, 1984, a postapocalyptic hard-boiled-detective flick about a child killer on the loose, came first; then Epidemic, 1987, a film within a film centered on disease and the inability (or unwillingness) to cure it; Zentropa, 1991, an existential thriller about post-Nazi German guilt and apparently doomed innocence, followed. After that, he detoured into television, making four episodes of The Kingdom, 1994, a way-weirder-than-Twin Peaks series about a hospital besieged by ghosts that’s inexplicably sinking back into the swamp it was built on. Only a Greek chorus of Down’s syndrome dishwashers knows exactly what’s going on; everybody else is reduced to searching for answers by way of seances and conspiracies, contributing to the general odor of decay by leaving severed body parts lying around and hiring others to procure voodoo potions, or just burying their administrative heads in the fetid ground and calling it “Operation Fresh Air.” If there’s one thing von Trier has faith in it’s the irrational as a productive force.

Von Trier’s bleak worldview is mirrored by recurrent formal devices: his movies all come out looking like they’ve been bleached or dunked in acid or just left out in the sun for too long—like they’ve ripened and begun to rot. Gauzy, decay-colored footage turns the televisual Kingdom into a pseudo-vérité meditation on hidden corruption. Epidemic oscillates between mock-documentary, corroded-looking 16 mm (to represent the world of those making the film within a film) and “artistic,” high-quality 35 mm black and white (for the plague-shattered world they create). And while The Element of Crime is photographed in the sepia tones of nostalgia, it avoids romanticizing the past by remaining resolutely nasty right up to the end—and winds up looking mostly like a too-old noir print straight out of the can. In Zentropa, too, von Trier cops high-noir style, with the camera swooping in on a shadowy black and white world—replete with saturated washes of light and slabs of darkness—interspersed with the occasional colored image. None of the bright spots add up to anything like hope, though: everything finally goes gray, with the camera following the corpse of the main character into the river and down toward the sea, as the voice of a hypnotist intones, “you cannot wake up.”

Formally, Breaking the Waves is of a piece with the director’s earlier work—the trick here is that there’s no way out. Once you sit down you’re sucked in, trapped in a self-contained and self-referential filmic world; it’d be almost unbearable, except that this world is big enough for you to get lost in (qualifying for epic status at a little more than two and a half hours). Blending rigorously stylized camerawork and the sort of emotionalism that goes straight for the gut and heart, the film, at once brutal and uplifting, manages to be beautiful by hovering just at the edge of ugliness. This time out, von Trier has succeeded in using his signature tropes to new effect: he has cinematographer Robbie Müller get out the handheld cameras, and then sends them swirling 360 degrees around the actors, all jostling one another in the awful light and dismal weather of the Scottish coast (the travelphobic Dane must have felt right at home). But where the director had previously used hypnotism as a framing device, marking his films as an artificial return to the scene of a primal repressed, here a tide of larger-than-life emotions and endlessly circling cameras stand in for the hypnotist’s swaying watch, his spinning wheel, and you’re left in a trance from which it’s almost impossible to awaken. After a while, the horrors he shoots seem almost real. There are only two breaks in this mesmerist’s documelodrama: the first comes in the form of the painstakingly produced film stock. Everything was initially shot in Super 35 mm, transferred to video for color manipulation, and then back to standard 35 mm format: the end product looks like a home movie made during the period it’s set in, all ’70s avocadoes and linoleum browns, as grainy as if it had been shot during an endless rainstorm. The other departure was no less laborious: von Trier hired Danish painter Per Kirkeby to produce a series of idyllic, picture-postcard scenes of the Scottish coastline. The resulting echt-Romantic landscapes were then fed into a computer, colored, animated, and transferred to film—happy little clouds, looming mountains, pastoral villages, and slowly bobbing boats mark the beginning of each of the film’s five episodic sections. They’re accompanied by equally echt-romantic ’70s pop classics like Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” T. Rex’s “Hot Love,” and, of course, Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding”—the perfect soundtrack for a kitschy little excursion into heartbreak hell.

Von Trier is aware of the affective atmosphere he creates and the soap-operatic genre he’s working with; he’s said himself that this movie is on the verge of kitsch. He’s wrong about that though—Breaking the Waves isn’t on the verge, it’s jumped, laughing and crying, right over that edge. And it’s the better for it. The Danish director has finally enacted what his genre-tweaking showed that he knew all along: kitsch is powerful. It’s a first for von Trier, making a “real” film about “real” people, telling a simple story: Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), the sweet-tempered oil-rig worker, marries Bess (Emily Watson), a girl from a Scottish village dominated by a hideously repressive Calvinist church (so repressive they believe church bells are the Devil’s work). But since the genre demands complications—“the course of true love never runs smooth”—he has really horrible things happen to poor Jan and lovely Bess, at once luminous, fierce, and frail. Until what’s finally left is a film that one of the actors could quite reasonably describe as “melodrama’s answer to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Breaking the Waves works precisely because it’s never above playing to the cheap seats; by unabashedly embracing the dictums of kitsch, it manages to transcend the cliché.

After the wedding, Jan goes back to the rig and “simple-minded” Bess finds out what heartache is like. Praying to her harsh God, she asks Him to bring Jan back to her, whatever it takes; God, who talks back to Bess in a voice very much like her own (mostly because Bess vocalizes for Him), acquiesces. Strangely enough, it seems perfectly reasonable that God would actually talk to this girl—kitsch truth knows that He loves fools, little children, and other innocents. And God, like His opposite, has always floated around behind the scenes in von Trier’s films: whether in the form of the hypnotist’s sardonic voice-over following Kessler out to sea (Zentropa), or that of the myriad ghouls and ghosts that haunt The Kingdom, or even simply of a Kafkaesque absence in The Element of Crime. In Breaking the Waves, the Deity has bad news for good Bess: He’ll bring Jan back, but she may not like the price.

She doesn’t. Jan comes home brain-damaged and paralyzed, injured in an oil-rig accident, home to a hospital bed and the gray lands between death and life, a place where no one has any real hope for him except Bess. Hospitals are always good places to avoid in von Trier’s universe, and doctors, too: if the irrational is the strongest force around, no one is more deluded than “men of science.” Simple, but no dummy, Bess instinctively knows this, and, she reasons, since she put Jan in the clutches of the so-called rational world in the first place, she can get him out. Unfortunately, reason fails Bess, just like it always does everybody else—when Jan tells her to find another man, she conflates his desire with her desire to cure him. Her logic works like this: if she makes love to other men, she’ll be following God’s wishes by following Jan’s, and he’ll get better. A long downward spiral commences, with Bess tarting herself up and having sex with strangers, then frantically checking on Jan’s condition. Since God keeps telling her that Jan will get better only if she passes His test, Bess keeps picking up men.

It actually gets worse from there, before it gets better, before you finally realize that the whole film is a deeply Catholic meditation on modern sainthood, on the power of childlike innocence and faith (von Trier’s a recent convert). Of course, von Trier is well aware that these are, in their own way, pretty horrible forces to get tangled up in: he knows innocents are always one step away from being martyrs and that saints, while they’re alive, are usually confused with simpletons or madmen, or both. In Breaking the Waves that knowledge results in an admixture that’s equal parts unexpurgated fairy tale (by the Brothers Extremely Grim), chronicle of the torments of the early Christians, and retelling of Sade’s Justine with a (sort of) happy ending: the martyr is comforted. It just takes a miracle to get there.

But that’s the point—it never takes anything less for good to triumph over evil. In von Trier’s world, the only buttress against chaos is a God’s eye view, and the only way to get one is by piling artifice on top of artifice until you can finally see what’s really there. As von Trier put it in a recent interview: “In Breaking the Waves, I really go in for deception, to the extent that we try and make it look a bit like real life . . . and it thus becomes hypnotic, where my other films are about hypnosis.” And like a true hypnotist he leads you down a torturous path so seductively that, by the time it’s all over, you actually believe that the film’s kitschy epigraph, “God gives everyone something to be good at,” just might be true.



1. All the quotes in this article were taken from an interview originally published in Politiken.