Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone. Continue reading
“No more happy endings,” joked Lars Von Trier, still smarting from the beating he took upon the release of Antichrist. Late in 2009, the director said he was planning a science-fiction film about the end of the world, fueling speculation that the new one would be a departure from the dark, junk-crushing epic that had earned him such scorn at Cannes. But now that Melancholia is here, it plays like an obvious companion piece to the earlier film. There are some tweaks, sure. Antichrist depicted a marriage racked by a woman’s guilt, while Melancholia features a wedding wrecked by a woman’s depressive disorder. But both films probe the nature of depression and the ways it can inspire people to withdraw, lash out, and sabotage their own chances at happiness.
Lars Von Trier has been ducking accusations that he holds the female sex in a rather low regard for as long as he’s been making movies about suffering women. Breaking the Waves set the stage for the next decade or more of his career in grand fashion, with an epic chronicle of female sacrifice that climaxed with the conflation of a woman’s faith and debasement receiving the approval of a watchful God. Arguing on Usenet back in the day, I briefly advanced a crackpot theory that Breaking the Waves was a kind of metaphysical horror movie, an audience’s revulsion at the sexual hoops Bess jumps through in the belief that her promiscuity will somehow help heal her husband’s paralyzing injury meant to be surpassed only by its astonishment that the universe was run by an entity that considered such behavior not only noble but exemplary. For the hell of it, I sent a quick email to an address that I believed to be Von Trier’s, asking, “Does Breaking the Waves have a happy ending?” The one-word response came back overnight: “Yes!!!!” So much for irony.
“You must know by now: there’s a black floor, it takes three hours, nothing happens, the outcome is terrible. Nobody should say that they were not warned.”
— Lars Von Trier
For a filmmaker who thrives on confrontation, Dogville is some kind of crowning achievement. In just under three hours’ time, Lars Von Trier’s latest provocation expertly draws audiences into, drags them through and spits them out the other side of a sad yarn from Hell’s own storybook. The unctuous narration by John Hurt offers a comforting introduction to the sleepy Rocky Mountain mining town named in the title. But as the story is told, his sing-song vocal stylings are revealed as utterly cynical and more than a little sarcastic. For his voice is also the voice of the auteur behind the film, and Von Trier takes a pretty dim view of Dogville.
[SPOILERS ENSUE. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN DOGVILLE, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU CHECK OUT MY CAPSULE REVIEW INCLUDED HERE INSTEAD.]
Dancer in the Dark is set in the Pacific Northwest, but the geography feels like a running joke. The landscapes don’t resemble anything in North America, and the film is so dour and unremitting that it could only be European in origin.
It seems likely that, for Lars von Trier, The Idiots is both the beginning and ending of Dogme 95, the set of back-to-basics aesthetic principles he helped concoct. Certainly his next project, a lavish musical starring Björk, falls outside the Dogme 95 purview. Stipulating natural lighting, natural sound, and the absence of props or special effects, the Dogme restrictions supposedly spur directors to new creative thought by making them re-evaluate the importance of character and story in an era where world cinema is more and more dominated by Hollywood-style artifice.
Breaking the Waves, a powerful fable from Danish director Lars von Trier (Zentropa, The Kingdom) is as daunting as it is satisfying. The satisfaction comes from von Trier’s audacious and ever-deepening sense for filmmaking — Breaking the Waves is his most ambitious and skillfully drawn narrative so far, and it offers the pleasure of undertaking an uncertain journey, unsure of where it might all end. That’s also what’s daunting. Breaking the Waves is epic in scope, careering wildly from warm and fleshy love story to grim tragedy to something else entirely over the course of its 158 minutes. It’s a film that demands your rapt attention bit by bit, plumbing ever-deeper corners of the soul and plunging at one point into the abyss. Finally, once it’s over, it will return day by day to haunt its audiences. This is seriously nervy filmmaking.