There is a famous scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, throws his sword at the pavilion and then yells at the crowd, “are you not entertained?” The arena is dead silent because, no, they are not entertained. Instead of dying slowly, Maximus has broken the rules and has killed everyone else—and quickly—taking from his audience the chance to linger over a spectacle of violence and death.
The power of that moment is not just that he has robbed them of their bloody sport, however, it is also that by flipping the rules around, Maximus has forced the observers ringing the arena (and by extension, us) to ask themselves just what sort of monsters are they, who would take such pleasure in the pain of others. The moment passes, though, and we go on to greater orgies of gore. This is, after all, Hollywood.
There are filmmakers, however, who will not allow us to be entertained—who orchestrate every moment, bringing the full weight of the entire film to bear to make us slow, pause, and then stop, completely, to ask ourselves just that question: what kind of monsters are we? The best of these filmmakers answer, tentatively, that we are beautiful monsters, and that if we will choose the path of love, there is hope for us yet.
One such man is director Lars von Trier, the prolific Danish filmmaker and screenwriter who is hailed within the industry as one of the greatest in the world. Privately, the dude is sort of a mess, the kind of guy who would (and did) break up with his pregnant wife to move in with their much younger babysitter. He says controversial, politically incorrect things in public and has struggled with clinical depression. Yet as an artist, he is a man of whom director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, Magnolia, etc.) has said he would “carry [his] luggage anywhere.”
My first encounter with von Trier’s work happened years ago, in Canada, when my ex-wife and I were living for a time with the family of Christopher John, of the successful (but now defunct) Canadian folk-rock band, Stabilo. Christopher owned a copy of von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, but recommended that I wait and watch it some time when I could be with other people. I would need them, he said, when it was over.
Things were not going all that well with my ex at the time, though, and I think I wanted to suffer. So one drizzly British Columbia day, I sat down and proceeded to get pummeled, head-to-toe, by a work of incredible power… a movie that told the story of a woman who sacrificed everything to save her son from her own congenital blindness. When it was over, I sat silent—as I had been told I would—with tears running down my face as the credits rolled all the way through. I sat there for a while after, as well, watching the blank screen and wondering, “Where is that love in my life? Where is the grace? And what kind of man am I, in the light of such a story?”
Last week, after reading the review I wrote of the Swedish film As It Is in Heaven, an actor/director friend of mine in Los Angeles named Chris Crutchfield wrote to ask if I had perchance heard of Lars von Trier’s work. When I told him of my experience with Dancer in the Dark, he recommended that I also watch Breaking the Waves, a film that Martin Scorsese has listed as one of his top ten films of the ’90s. So last night, I did.
It was not particularly entertaining. The actors were brilliant, but it was shot low-fi, hand-held, documentary-style. The primary action was out of focus more than is customary, and the script did not bother to try to follow the rules of classical narrative structure. von Trier is famous for his impressionistic style, and it was out in full force here, making it difficult, at times, to remain interested in the film. Impressionism in film is weird, and distracting.
Only the most pretentious, self-important film snobs would claim these things don’t bother them—that they can watch a movie like this and stay transfixed throughout. We are conditioned by our flash-bang culture against films like this, and, make no mistake, Breaking the Waves is difficult. Yet like all great art, there are extra rewards available to those willing to put some extra effort into engaging difficult work, to become more than passive recipients of an art form that so often resorts to titillation and pandering to keep their attention.
Breaking the Waves, like Dancer in the Dark, is a love story. But this is not a Tinseltown tale, where everyone is beautiful and where—if you can just hold on for 120 minutes—everybody will live happily ever after. No, this is a story somewhat like our own; grounded as it is in the real world, where bad things happen despite the best intentions and where injustice often stands uncorrected…seemingly forever.
The real struggle here, then, is not in whether everything will work out well so that everyone can be happy, but in how people will love in the midst of the brokenness and pain of their lives.
Drawing on the great narrative tradition of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, this film paints a picture of a simple-minded female protagonist, Bess, a woman who lives a life of transparent, elemental love. She is not particularly beautiful, intelligent, or sophisticated, but she is exquisitely real. And out of that reality she loves in a way that transcends the broken circumstances of her life and produces, of all things, a miracle.
This is strange, given that von Trier is, if not an atheist, then at least a man severely disillusioned with God. Yet there is such beautiful hope here, and an affirmation of faith that I can guarantee will jerk tears from the eyes of any man or woman willing to see love as the very essence of what God is.
I am giving nothing away by telling you that the movie centers around the conflict Bess experiences when her husband, Jan, is horribly injured and paralyzed in an accident and she comes to believe that the way to save his life is to prove to God her love of her husband by giving in to Jan’s pain-addled plea for her to go out and take a lover and then come back and report on the experience to him.
Sexuality plays as important a role in this movie as it does in real life, and while it is not glorified or voyeurized as a “thing in itself” outside of a loving, married and committed context, the movie is endlessly frank. In so doing, it challenges our conceptions of what love really is, and what it really means to love God.
Breaking the Waves asks gigantic questions, but the biggest perhaps of all is that it forces you, the viewer, to stop, and ask yourself what you really think God is like. Will you judge Bess for what she does? Will you ignore the love that motivates her and take account, solely, of the actions to which it drives her? Are you, in fact, that kind of monster?