Von Trier's Postmodern
- Another Pseudo Debate
Movie: Breaking the Waves
Director and scriptwriter (partly): Lars von Trier
The first time I was ever engaged in reviewing pictures was in the early fifties. I once had a heated debate with the neighbour's boy about the contents of the cartoon Dragos (Phantom comics), appearing in our local newspaper at the time. My protagonist expressed his general satisfaction with the contents of the strip, however he accused it for want of realism. When I asked him to specify his complaints he spoke thus in his southern Swedish dialect, hard to translate into English: "I dunnot believe it much, from where gits he all his pixtols?"
That is, my friend had no problem with Dragos being characterised as a 100-fold reinforced ghost who walks around, dwelling among the pygmies of the Denkali Jungle (situated in Africa!), possessing the strength of 10 tigers (in Africa!) - because all that junk and much of the like he was used to from various cartoons. Or, at any rate, such phenomena were beyond his experience. Likewise, the fact that Dragos permanently seemed to appear in scrupulously clean tights (like his girlfriend (!) Diana's shorts) irrespective of any kind of dirty or violent activities he had been engaged in five minutes ago - this did constitute no mystery to him, since his own trousers (like mine) were washed automatically every night by his mother (or by an Angel of God, who cared?). It is another matter with logistical problems - he did know, from his personal experience, that at least wooden guns and pistols did not appear in the middle of the wood just because you needed them.
When reading the reviews of the Danish movie-maker Lars von Trier's latest movie Breaking the Waves I suddenly realised that some critics were just reproducing the above debate on a higher (?) level.
As this movie has received several international awards its plot by now should be well known to the Indian viewers - yet I shall repeat it once more:
Emily Watson is a divine female village fool, living with her parents and her widowed sister-in-law in a rather stern Calvinist parish on the island of Skye, outside Scotland. She has preserved a naive faith in her God, with whom she is constantly communicating while cleaning the village church. She has also been able to preserve her virginity - saving it for the One and Only, who one day appears in the shape of Stellan Skarsgaard. Stellan is somewhat more experienced (but honest and hard-working) Scandinavian oil-worker. They marry. For some weeks they indulge in highly satisfactory sexual activities - of which the audience is provided some very tasteful and stimulating glimpses. Alas, soon Stellan's drudgery at the oil-rig starts anew. In the absence of her spouse, Emily becomes depressed and frustrated, praying to her God to get her husband back home. Her request is granted - her husband returns paralysed from neck to toe after having suffered an accident. His doctors are expecting him to remain in this condition for the rest of his life.
As often happens in conditions like this, Skarsgaard becomes depressed and a bit wicked - partly due to his sexual impotency. Possibly due to his spinal cord injury masturbatory aid seems to constitute no alternative. Instead, Skarsgaard implores the (at least until recently) innocent Emily to have intercourse with other men, afterwards providing him with all details of the events. Of course, Emily should not have agreed to yield to these perverse desires. However, being a bit childish and inclined to magical modes of thought (like, besides, the director of this film) she gets the idea that her husband will heal if she does. Emily is ostracised by the parish and the society due to her unselfish fornication. Soon she perishes in the middle of her uninhibited but unselfish orgies among the bestial crews in the harbour. In the same moment her husband, supposed to be dying, stands up from his berth, his spinal cord injury is healing in a week. Thus, as often happens in postmodern narrations, the medical skeptics are refuted. When Emily is buried in the middle of the sea, bells are ringing from the sky.
Emily's faith, her childish prayers and heroic sacrifice have achieved a miracle.
There is not an eye that is not filled with tears.
In the final analysis there is only one honest prayer:
"Heavenly Father, let two plus two be five!"
For centuries our humble humanity has been kneeling in front of wooden poles, termite heaves, boulders or monotheistic deities uttering that prayer hoping to achieve a miracle. When summing up our experience from these activities many of us have found that the prayers on the whole have not been very effective - although I grant that they in some instances (not for Emily though) may give the praying person some psychological satisfaction. This inefficacy may be one important reason why people are not praying as much nowadays as they used to - because we are in fact to some extent capable of learning from our collective experience.
Instead, when confronted with a desperate situation, we have no alternative but to analyse it, finding out what we could deal with (which is often quite a lot) - and take appropriate measures. What we could not influence we have to put up with. This line of action may not appear very exciting. However, in this manner, not through prayers, Humanity has achieved wonderful things, in fact genuine progress tends to occur in blind alleys.
Emily was motivated by a strong emotion for her beloved husband. This is great. A strong emotion, however, does not exclude rational behaviour, on the contrary, it gives it momentum. You will not find a more calculating creature than a person in love. In the film under consideration the two spouses had very strong emotions for each other. This is quite normal for an infatuation not being given the time to wane. A person in love is capable of walking on glowing charcoal in order to accommodate the wishes of the object, exhibiting powers that no one would have thought him/her capable of - no magic powers, however. The same goes for affection between parents and children. When a beloved one is fatally ill, it is quite rational to try every means, even the most far-fetched medical methods, in order to save his/her life. What methods are to be considered reasonable in this context depends on the level of scientific knowledge of the individual - a fact always giving various quacks their bread and butter. Such dull matter-of-fact considerations do, however, not affect our Boreal David Lynch. His intention has been to stage a postmodern Holy Legend. There are plenty of them in the movies already.
When Christian movie-makers like Carl Dreier (one of von Triers' idols) or the young Ingmar Bergman make Christian movies, no one should blame them, although at the bottom these works might be unintelligible for pagans like us. Von Trier claims to be a Catholic. So did Baron von Munchausen, as far as I know. The filmatography of von Trier, including works overtly flirting with spiritualism and occultism, reveals, however, that the Christianity of von Trier is as genuine as the von (implying nobility) he himself put in front of his bourgeois family name. To him it does not matter whether the magic is black or white as long as he can use it to attack Modernity.
So much for Breaking the Waves. It should be mentioned that from an artistic point of view (the cast, the photography etc.) the film is a high-class performance. No doubt von Trier is a clever postmodern jerk.
How, you may ask, do the pistols of Dragos fit into the story?
Well, there has been a debate about this movie. As most situations involving men and women (there are plenty of them) nowadays invariably are analysed in terms of genus (instead of class), von Trier has been attacked for being anti-feminist: "Is it correct to let a woman sacrifice herself for a man like the heroine of this plot does?, that is the clever question asked by our trendy critics. You might as well accuse Matthew, Lukes, Mark and John for letting Christ sacrifice himself for humanity on the cross. People do sacrifice themselves now and then, and von Trier should not be held totally responsible for Emily's actions. Her behaviour may be irrational, but it is still realistic.
The fact, however, that von Trier is letting her sacrifice achieve a heavenly miracle, must be a free invention of von Trier. These astonishing events are not considered by our sharp analysts, being as addicted to postmodern and occult fairy tales as my above fellow critic was used to magically cleaned trousers and peregrinating ghosts in the cartoons some fifty years ago.
"Saint Emily loved her Stellan to the extent that she gave her genitals out to the world and thus she saved his life".
This is not a matter of feminism or male chauvinism - it's sheer nonsense. How come they do not realise that?
How come they take a jerk like von Trier seriously?