Transcendence of Space in Von Trier's “Breaking the Waves”

A while back I was invited to act as the guest editor of a magazine, which shall remain nameless. I was working under a different pseudonym at the time, and I’d come up with some unusual ideas about not only the content I wanted to include in my issue of the mag, but also how that content would be created.

One of those ideas was to have a series of writers create articles immediately, at their own homes, while I plied them with liquor and odd anecdotes and opinions. It was an experiment to see if a certain spontaneity and vigor couldn’t be added to the usually dull and predictable proceedings of so many mainstream periodicals.

Among the writers chosen was a friend of mine of the pen-name Darius Ebert, an expert in the finer points of cinema. I gave him the following mission: “Write a 2,000-word article based on one of three subjects, which I will think of and jot down on a napkin in a couple of minutes. You will have exactly five hours to complete the essay, and you can only use reference works you have available right here, in your apartment. I’ll edit and polish the piece tomorrow, when I’m sober. And then I’ll include it in this magazine.”

Regrettably, the article Chris wrote was deemed too “ridiculously difficult to understand, and completely dated” by the publisher. Subsequently, it was cut from the final line-up of the magazine. So, now, in another Celebrity Cola exclusive, I’m going to publish it for the first time, here, online.

Following are the three topics from which Chris was asked to choose, followed by the completed essay and a list of the sources he frantically yanked from his bookshelves. (Personally, I thought the third and final subject listed below would be the toughest and least fun to scribe under these conditions, and had guessed that Chris would go with the second topic, but he confounded my prediction.)

“Bill Murray: Magnificent Actor/Comedian, Inferior Roles (especially in the 1990s)”


“Mickey Rourke: The New Marlon Brando (but highly underappreciated and completely washed up)”


“The Transcendence of Space in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves

Lars Von Trier's “Breaking the Waves” may very well be the most important film of the 1990s. Moreover, it is one of the most beautiful and powerful films in all of film history. The film's power derives from the uniqueness of its style. Though many of its techniques and devices are not unprecedented, and have, indeed, become quite common in the many years since the groundbreaking films of Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes used them, “Breaking the Waves” is nonetheless a radical work of representation. The editing and photography of the film is both primitive and yet completely groundbreaking. It owes a debt to the work of another Danish director, Carl Theodore Dreyer, in such films as “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and, especially, “Ordet.” Yet it also expands on the possibilities of cinematic syntax in a wholly original way, thus creating a completely transcendent work of art.

By avoiding the dull, static naturalism that characterizes traditional filmmaking, Von Trier restores the utter complexity of life as it is actually lived through the use of shaky, hand-held camera work, jump cuts, and an open, seemingly haphazard approach to composition. It is shot almost entirely in close-up without a single orthodox establishing shot, and cinematographer Robby Muller's camerawork achieves a new intimacy with the actors. The pure expressiveness of their faces and gestures is remarkable. Nevertheless, life in all its abundance simply cannot be completely reproduced on screen. Instead, Von Trier hints at it with loose compositions that suggest an infinite world beyond the simple confines of a rectangular frame. Likewise, the elliptical cutting results in a rapid accumulation of disparate details, which cannot be easily processed. All of this creates a sort of mystery, forcing the audience to acknowledge a world existing beyond the confines of the material represented.

The events of “Breaking the Waves” are condensed mostly into single and two character scenes. The film concerns human instincts of love, faith, and sexual yearning and their repression by society, which is represented in the film by a strict religious sect. The film revolves around Bess, an updated version of the archetype of the Holy Fool. In response to the patriarchal Protestant system, which will not even allow women to speak in church or attend funeral services, she has sought a direct communication with God. Her introverted way of life is complicated by her love for Jan (her new, rugged, oil-rigger husband) and her awakening sensuality. This dichotomy leads to many hardships for Bess and, ultimately, her death. The film depicts a story that is both very specific and exquisitely universal as Bess’s torments and faith unfold.

But a mere description of the film's theme and characters is not the focus of this essay. “Breaking the Waves” is about life. It is the film's style, in its adherence to the unfathomable scope of life, which is its content. This style is wholly at odds with that of classical a Hollywood film. The so-called invisible style of those films reduces life to an easily assimilated series of bits in which everything flows through a simple logic of conflict, action, and resolution. The careful compositions exclude that which is not seen as obviously necessary to the storyline. Thus, all life is given a structure of simple meaning at the service of plot. These films are merely escapist fantasy; mass-produced entertainments promoting and servicing the cult of the star.

“Breaking the Waves” carefully avoids these formulaic and formalistic approaches to its material. At first glance, the movie, with its documentary-like style, seems connected to the films of the French New Wave and, especially, the work of its most influential member, Jean-Luc Godard. But while “Breaking the Waves” raises the specter of Godard’s greatest works (particularly “Breathless”) in its techniques, the effect is quite different.

With Godard, the purpose was to deconstruct the narrative. It was an attempt to empower the audience by giving them a glimpse at the processes used to create specific reactions (as explained by J. Dudley Andrew in “The Major Film Theories”). The editing and camerawork were meant to call attention to themselves, as opposed to “Breaking the Waves,” where they transcend their individual powers by no longer being mere tools in an attempt to prove a theory. Instead, they are simply used to present life in its truest state. It becomes impossible for the audience to situate itself or to view the characters from a detached perspective. While the spiraling camera movement and the disorienting editing may reflect the interior world of Bess, it also demonstrates an unwillingness on Von Trier's part to provide the viewer with a simple, constructed presentation of reality which has been taken and used as a convention ever since the days of the proscenium arch.

The situations facing the characters of “Breaking the Waves” are bleak and claustrophobic, but Von Trier's style expressly refuses to reinforce a sense of impotence and doom. The style is consistently one of new perspectives: The 180-degree rule is often violated. Stasis is explicitly rejected. The continuously panning camera movement, exaggerated by the very closeness of the frame, does not permit prediction or simple logic. And this alone seems to open up new possibilities of freedom in the film's isolated and morally constrained setting. This movement also echoes that of the ocean bordering Bess’s hamlet, which is an important detail that expands on the larger theme. It seems to suggest that the hope that exists in the world of the film comes from the natural world. Consequently, this linking of the filmic technique and the natural world seems to give the latter a holy significance, and it is this that allows one to see that, in the moral scope of the film, "Religion is accused, but not God,” as Von Trier notes to Stig Bjorkman in Sight and Sound.

This last statement connects “Breaking the Waves” with the work of Dreyer. In fact, on close examination, the film shows many affinities with a couple of Dreyer's films. The abundance of close-ups in “Breaking the Waves,” as well as their impact, is quite similar to Dreyer's “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” The close-up is a device common in classical Hollywood filmmaking as well, but in those films, it is much more an aesthetic effect than a revelatory one. The perfect faces of the glamorous stars are given a full showcase by the close-up: The lighting of a Hollywood close-up can be much more elaborate and flattering than any other star-glorifying shot in a film due to it being easier to position and control lights around such a small frame. However, both Dreyer and Von Trier dispense with stars. In “Arc” and “Breaking,” both their lead actresses are film newcomers. They prefer to focus on the expressive quality rather than the beauty of the face. Accordingly, Dreyer dispensed with make-up. Von Trier goes a step further, using neither make-up nor artificial lighting.

But as much as “Breaking the Waves” can be compared to “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” it seems to owe a far greater debt to another Dreyer film, “Ordet.” In fact, the character Mikkel's remark at his wife's deathbed near the end of “Ordet” that he "loved her body, too," seems to be the inspiration for the melding of faith and sensuality in “Breaking the Waves.” But more importantly, in “Ordet” Dreyer worked with the tracking shot and the long take in much the same way as Von Trier uses his techniques in “Breaking the Waves.” The shots in “Ordet” thus achieve a quality of constant movement and surprise similar to “Breaking.”

Both directors avoid the use of the establishing shot because a shot fixing the characters in their environment (their society) would indicate that life only exists within the borders of what is outlined by their oppressors (i.e., the world being limited by the initial frame). It would offer no hope and would establish precisely what Dreyer and Von Trier are trying to disestablish. The establishing shot could thus be seen as a metaphor for The Establishment -- the hypocritical religious orders that attempt to constrain the characters within a closed universe, disregarding the interior world of the individuals.

That said, it is important to note that Von Trier goes beyond Dreyer's initial experiment. Though “Ordet” is both a stylistic breakthrough and an extraordinary film, when compared to “Breaking the Waves” it can be seen as a much more contained and austere work. This is probably according to Dreyer's intentions; Comparatively, Von Trier's film achieves a sense of joy and wonder that is almost pagan.

The most striking similarity that both “Ordet” and “Breaking the Waves” share, however, is a miraculous end. In “Ordet,” it is the character Inger's resurrection from the dead. In “Breaking the Waves,” bells appear in the sky to mourn the death of Bess. For obvious reasons these are both quite cathartic and, yet, perplexing conclusions. However, considering the radical techniques, the final miracle is better understood.

The final scene of “Breaking the Waves” is certainly transcendent, but it cannot be detached from the rest of the film. It is not simply a moment of Holy Grace in a movie about worldliness. As has been previously noted, Von Trier's technique unifies the God and the world. The final shot is thus: the summary and effect of the editing and photography of the entire film.

In even the simplest scenes of the film Von Trier's manipulation of space creates the possibility of growth and change in the very shadow of repression. Accordingly, the idea of life in the midst of death seems completely comprehensible, a testament to the workings of a holy entity within the greater context of the film. The openness of the framing, the acknowledgement that what is seen is only a small part of what exists, the continuous changes caused by the narrative and the technique, the refusal to grant the audience any single, ultimate perspective -- these are part of Von Trier's presentation of (and preservation of) the unpredictability and possibility of life.

Life in “Breaking the Waves” is never hopeless despite the bareness of the characters' situation and environment. Miracles are seen not as mystical exceptions to physical laws, but simply as part of the utter mystery of life as we know it. “Breaking the Waves” seems to say that the very point of living is that of constant exploration, discovery, and adjustment. Faith must not be just maintained but renewed. In his book “Sculpting in Time,” Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, another truly transcendental artist, wrote that great art must produce a catharsis leaving its audience open to new potential. Similarly, the cathartic end of “Breaking the Waves” leaves its viewers with a sense of hope.

Perhaps because of the very ambiguity that is its subject, the film has confused many critics, even those who are generally supportive of it (as witnessed by Kathleen Murphy’s arguments in Film Comment against a fellow critic’s opinions of the film). Much of the confusion stems from Von Trier's own comments. He often seems to contradict himself, insisting in a single interview with Stig Bjorkman, for instance, that he’d wanted to do "a completely naturalistic film," while later remarking that he’d purposely “chosen a style that works against the story."

Stanley Kauffmann once wrote, "There seem to be two concurrent but separate professions -- filmmaking and interview giving." Von Trier's case is particularly sensitive given the extreme formalism of his past efforts. Those films, while evidence of a remarkable talent, are in both theme and form 180 degrees away from anything in “Breaking the Waves.” Even in this masterpiece, Von Trier seems to struggle with his new expressiveness: The lush chapter headings that divide the film are a glance back at his abstraction. This indicates perhaps a lack of trust in the audience's understanding of the implications present in the film's otherwise primitive style. However, like life, no work of art can be perfect, and no one would want it to be. “Breaking the Waves” succeeds brilliantly despite its minor flaws. In fact, the film is so great that it may be beyond its creator's comprehension. After all, the film deals with the transcendent -- that which is invisible and ineffable. It is something that is hard enough to achieve. It is understandable that even Von Trier may not be able to explain it in words.

As has been consistently noted, “Breaking the Waves” is a film about life. No other art form is as capable of representing life as the cinema. In “Breaking the Waves” life has been represented as never before. Through the manipulation of inherently cinematic space, Lars Von Trier has brought us a vision that cannot merely be described. “Breaking the Waves” is a film that has to be experienced rather than explained. It is not about meaning; it is about faith.


Works Cited:

J. Dudley Andrew, "The Major Film Theories." New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Stig Bjorkman, "Breaking the Waves," Sight and Sound. (October 1996).

Stanley Kauffmann, "Living Images." New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1975.

Kathleen Murphy, "Frames," Film Comment. (July - August 1997).

Adrei Tarkovsky, "Sculpting in Time." Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

1 comment:

Film Cans said...

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Props from the movie sets can come from a variety of sources. Often, after a film's premiere, the studio will auction off many of the props and costumes used in the film for the purpose of charity.