Magazine article The Christian Century

Breaking the Waves

Magazine article The Christian Century

Breaking the Waves

Article excerpt

THERE ARE TWO ways to deal cinematically with the cross: either re-create the first-century experience through a literal depiction of indifferent Roman soldiers pounding nails into the hands of a condemned man, or tell a parallel story inspired by the initial event. In the film Breaking the Waves, director Lars von Trier takes the second path. Film critics have been impressed by the film's artistry; some have even taken note of its theological content, usually with a mix of confusion, horror and awe--a combination of feelings that was also evoked by Jesus' death. Roger Ebert, for example, describes Bess, the film's central figure, as "a simple woman of childlike naivete, who sacrifices herself to sexual brutality to save the life of the man she loves." He adds that since "Bess does not have our ability to rationalize and evade," she "fearlessly offers herself to God as she understands him."

The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty acknowledges that the film moves through stormy theological waters, but he detects opportunism in von Trier's venture into Christology, describing him as "the first European director in quite a while who has recognized the aphrodisiac properties of religious imagery." The film, writes Rafferty, "transforms sweet, simple Bess into a saintly whore (Mary Magdalene is invoked) and then martyrs her." Von Trier "mixes Christian parable and masochistic fantasy" says Rafferty, with "breathtaking low cunning." (The film is not a parable. however; it's the story of reluctant but redeeming sacrificial love.)

Renfreu Neff, writing in the International Film Journal, finds little theological significance in Breaking the Wares, concluding that when Bess's husband, Jan. an oil rig worker, is paralyzed in an accident, "the end of his sexual functioning [is] the springboard that propels the story further into the harsh mutations of love, the corruption of faith and the defilement of goodness, a heavy load that this filmmaker carries with ease." But Bess's actions are not signs of corruption; they are signs of steadfast faith. They entail not a defilement of goodness but an embodiment of goodness. This goodness seems absurd to others. But then the world saw Christ and "knew him not."

When Bess talks with God, usually praying beside a pew in the austere white church where she dutifully worships each Sunday, she repeats out loud what she hears from God. Rafferty finds this somewhat off-putting: "We actually hear His end of the conversation: her voice deepens as she channels the quips and bons mots of the Almighty. (The quality of his dialogue suggests that Heaven isn't rich in writing talent.) "Rafferty doesn't seem to understand that God has always suffered from having his words translated through limited human voices.

Bess (played by Emily Watson, new to film but well known from the British stage) is a member of a strict, male dominated congregation. Women may not speak in church or be present for burials, of which there are several in the film. As the film opens, she is explaining to the church elders why she wants to marry Jan, a hand some, robust Swede (Stellar Skarsgard) who is an outsider to the community. The story of their romance, marriage, Jan's accident and its aftermath are told in six "chapters," each prefaced by pop songs of the 1970s, the period in which the film is set. The songs, such as Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," seem to comment on the narrative.

Bess has two friends, Dodo, her sister-in-law, and Dr. Richardson, both of whom see her willingness to do anything she can to save her husband's life as a sign of madness. …

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