Becoming-Woman by Breaking the Waves

By Nigianni, Chrysanthi | New Formations, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Becoming-Woman by Breaking the Waves


Nigianni, Chrysanthi, New Formations


   To believe in realities, distinct from that which is perceived,    is above all to recognize that    the order of our perceptions depends on them,    and not on us. 

H. Bergson

How is an essay on the Lars Von Trier's film Breaking the Waves (1996) related to an Issue on Deleuzean politics? If the phrase 'Deleuzean politics' sounds for many like an oxymoron, then the political character of a film like Breaking the Waves sounds even more problematic, and the whole story becomes even worse (or absurd?) with the claim that the film has indeed a political significance for feminist thinking and feminist politics. How can a film depicting woman as a victim, an object to be sacrificed, as the absolute idiot being stripped of any capacity for rationality, free determination and free will be a 'feminist' film, a film enhancing feminist politics? And how is it linked to Deleuzean politics?

Rather than starting by attempting a general evaluation of the political significance of Deleuze's work, as well as an overview of what constitutes a Deleuzean feminist politics (this is what this issue of new formations on the whole aims at demonstrating anyway), I will rather start by focusing on some specific links as they emerge from the cinematic event of Breaking the Waves --links which, as it will be argued later, challenge feminist thinking and bring into the fore some (often neglected) aspects of Deleuze's philosophy and thinking (a more 'mystical' Deleuze).

What are these links then? Breaking the Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill, who marries an outsider, a foreigner, who does not belong to the closed community of the small village Bess lives in; a community with deeply rooted fundamentalist Christian beliefs ruled by the elder men of the village, who determine the values of the social and personal lives of its members: according to these rules, life isn't for enjoyment; it is for serving God. Sex isn't for pleasure; it is for procreation. Outsiders aren't welcome. So Bess's decision to marry an outsider causes irritation to the community. But Bess is determined to marry Jan (an oil-rig worker), and the post-wedding scenes express the sexual awakening that signals also her happiness (personal sexual liberation is depicted as being positive for the subject's development). Nevertheless, Bess is somewhat simple and childlike, and has difficulty living without Jan when he is away on the oil platform. She prays for his return, and when he returns paralysed from the neck down after an accident in his workplace, she believes it is her fault. Being no longer able to make love, and mentally affected by the accident, Jan urges her to find and have sex with other men, and then tell him the details; a demand that becomes slowly in Bess's mind God's wish, and which leads her finally to her own death (a sacrificial death).

The theme of love is at the core of the film Breaking the Waves; however, love in Lars Von Trier's film escapes the cliches of an emotionality within a couple, and becomes instead a multifaceted event, a metamorphosising force that gives the film's narrative a multilayered, deep and complex character. Breaking the Waves is a film that brings together themes of love, religion (or better belief), spirituality, and difference, in a unique way that makes an urgent demand on us to rethink ethics outside the secularism-religion divide:

   It is highly spiritual yet anti-religious, triumphant yet tragic,    and personal yet universal. Love forms the film's core, but rather    than approaching the subject from a cliched perspective, Breaking    the Waves examines no less than six facets of the emotion:    transformative love, sacrificial love, redemptive love, destructive    love, romantic love, and sexual love. (1) 

The film's plot is enacted by two main conceptual figures: that of the idiot (identified with a naive believer, a faithful subject, the ignoratnia amans) and the sacrificial subject/object.

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