Sunday, February 8, 2009
For whatever reason, the Dogme 95 movement has always seemed pretentious to me on paper. Actually, no, I know the reason, it's the rulebook the founders established with the group in order to promote intellectual growth in film. Known as the Vow of Chastity, it essentially enforced a strict verité approach even though it forbade any action like murders and guns. Maybe it's because I'm an American, but I think guns are an everyday aspect of life; besides, I have issues with someone calling a type of film verité if you're just reading out of a guide. However, if the Dogme 95 products contain more films like Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, I will gladly eat a mountain of crow.
In a small Calvinist community in Scotland, Bess (Emily Watson) gets engaged to an outsider who came through town working on an oil rig. Bess is devout in her faith; she cleans the church and even has two-way "conversations" with God in which she speaks for the Lord in a gruff, firm voice and for herself in a timid, childlike tone. Initially the community resists her marriage to Jan, but Bess is in love and her family reluctantly agrees. At the reception, one of Jan's rig buddies crushes a beer can to impress Bess' grandfather, who in turn breaks a glass of lemonade with his bare hands. Though a virgin, Bess is ready to be a good wife from the start, even offering herself to him before the reception.
Bess' best friend, her sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), worries for her: she knows that Bess is childlike and naïve, and even confronts Jan to warn him not to corrupt his new bride. But we see that Jan is a good man, and we do no worry. After a honeymoon, he heads back to the oil rig to work, leaving Bess to deal with loneliness for the first time. When he comes back, he's been paralyzed by an accident. "Life should not always be preserved at all costs," warns one of the community's pragmatic doctors, but Bess will hear none of it. She's just glad her husband is alive.
Now incapable of making love, he encourages his wife to sleep with another man and tell him about the experience. Why? I am not sure, for we never learn. If I had to guess, I'd say he felt guilty that his wife, a virgin until their marriage, could only experience such carnal pleasures for a short time before she became saddled with a paralyzed husband. But the reason matters little, as Bess' obedience of her husband leads to the real crux of the story: a spiritual journey.
Bess, so torn by her religious upbringing, comes to view her husband's request as her duty to God: sleeping with other men will convince God that she loves her husband, and He in turn will heal Jan. Jan's condition instead worsens, and it drives Bess to near-madness. Soon she's so desperate that she rides out to a ship that even prostitutes avoid because of how rough the men treat them. These events lead to several big revelations and twists that make you think about the nature of God and spirituality, as well as the relationship between Jan and Bess.
von Trier forces us to ask ourselves one big question with the film: is Bess a sinner? Certainly the community thinks so. At the start of the film, we see how dogmatic her small town is: "We don't need bells in our church to worship God," Bess' grandfather growls to an inquisitive Jan. At a funeral, the priest actually calls the deceased a sinner and assures the congregation that the man currently resides in Hell. Women do not speak in the services, and any display of emotion is frowned upon. When the town eventually figures out that Bess is sleeping with other men, they cast her out, and the children who used to speak to her now throw stones. I can't imagine they know why they throw them, only that their parents have condemned her. But even in her darkest moments Bess remains spiritually pure even as she places herself in situations that are anything but innocent.
The film rests squarely on Emily Watson's shoulders, and she delivers an absolutely devastating performance. The more hopeless Bess' situation becomes the more Watson becomes unhinged. Yet the nature of her character keeps Watson from slipping into overacting or mugging; instead, she makes the whole thing strangely plausible. As we learn more about her character and what possibly motivates her, our sympathy deepens for this poor, tortured soul. Her story ends in tragedy, but the ending contains a sort of cosmic intervention that does not fix problems but gives us a sense of closure (it did take me a second to get, though).
von Trier noted that the film broke a number of Dogme 95 tenets: the director used sets instead of actual locations, set the film in the past, hints at extreme violence in one moment, and even uses CGI at one point. He even uses non-diegetic music with occasional irony: I got a kick out of hearing Deep Purple's "Child in Time" as it played over a port at sunset, when the water actually looks purple. All of this delights me. It tells me that von Trier was more concerned with making a good film than a "proper" one. And what a good film he made; Breaking the Waves is one of the most insightful films made about spirituality, and that may very well have to do with the fact that religion itself plays only a peripheral role; clerics stick to the "rules" as if that makes a good Christian, but this woman true faith confuses them. While they may not react as violently as the judges did in The Passion of Joan of Arc, we still see how myopic and misguided they are in the face of a true believer.