Breaking the Waves (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Bess (Emily Watson) and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) get married even if Bess’ highly devout religious community does not welcome strangers into their lifestyle. While Jan is away to work in an oil rig, a terrible accident occurs which leads to his paralysis. Bess, convinced she has a direct line of communication with God, feels guilty because she wished for Jan’s return prior to the incident. One day, Jan tells Bess that she ought to find a man, make love to the stranger, and go back to tell him all about it. Bess goes through with her spouse’s wish eventually. Soon, she notices that with every sexual act she engages in with another man, her husband appears to get better. She figures that maybe if she gets together with enough partners, Jan would be able to walk again.
There are few movies that chill me to the bone and “Breaking the Waves,” written by Lars von Trier and Peter Asmussen, is one of them. Part of its genius is that it works on several levels. It can be interpreted as a love story that teeters between sanity and lunacy. It can also be seen as an anti love story, a complex case study of religious indoctrination and what it does to the mind and one’s reality. Either way, it is a compelling piece of work.
Good actors can deliver two performances simultaneously. It is all the more impressive that Watson manages to deliver four performances. All of them, at least in terms of framework, could have been laughable under less capable hands. We get Bess the simple girl, Bess the married woman, Bess the God, and Bess the prostitute. Though each performance can be categorized quite easily, I admired how she dares to mix two or three of them at once. What results is a character I had never encountered before—and I was not prepared with what to do with or how to understand her best.
For example, we watch Bess—a married woman physically and a simple girl in reasoning—pray to God and we see her respond using the voice of what she believes her god might sound like. It might appear dangerously comical on paper, especially in a bleak drama, but Watson makes it work by giving Bess an unhealthy mix of innocence and desperation—she is a simple girl but she loves her husband so much that she will do anything, even if it puts herself in danger, not only to prove the fact but also to better his state of health. The choices she makes in how to play Bess feel fresh. Since the character is also unpredictable, it becomes a challenge to keep up with the subject’s state of mind.
We get to know the Scottish community through the way they treat those who they label as outcasts. There are three types in the film: Jan the new outsider, Dodo the old outsider (marvelously played by Katrin Cartlidge—a great sounding board for Bess’ struggle), and Bess, not only considered to be emotionally and psychologically feeble, she is also married to the new outsider. The lack of trust of the community to these figures are communicated in various ways: through silence, a judgmental look, or what they do or not do when one needs help. We are meant to respond to the community’s lack of moral compass—even if they believe their actions get a seal of approval from a higher power.
I do not and will probably never understand why some people feel that the film, directed by von Trier, is mean-spirited. Is it because the characters go through horrible ordeals? Is it due to the underlying commentary toward religious groups? How do these people define the word “mean-spirited” exactly? I think the movie is bold in that it is willing to go through unexplored territory to get a reaction from the audience while maintaining a razor-sharp focus on what it is hoping to accomplish. It is rare that we receive a high-class, high-level filmmaking that commands an original vision. They should be celebrated rather than condemned.
I say “Breaking the Waves” is a very human story. It focuses on the people who care about Bess—her husband, Dodo, the local doctor (Adrian Rawlins). We care about Bess when she is being hurt or in danger. It is not about hatred or violence. It is about love. Love, after all, is what compels the subject to do the things she ends up doing.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Vol. II” is a superior second half because it strips away symbolic—some might say pretentious—talk that range from fly fishing to the Fibonacci sequence. It feels like a slightly more ordinary drama on a technical level but it is ultimately the correct approach because it gives the picture a chance to narrow its attention on the deeply damaged self-described nymphomaniac.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) notices that although she has told plenty of details about her highly erotic sexual encounters with other men—most of them complete strangers—Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) is not at all aroused by any of it. When confronted by the fact, he tells her that this is exactly why he is the perfect person to listen to her stories. Unlike many, he is able to provide her an objective opinion of what she has and is going through. Seemingly satisfied with his answer, she proceeds to recall a time in her life in which she has completely lost all sexual sensation.
The portion of the film that grabbed me most is the subchapter called “Dangerous Men.” It is injected with a sharp but very uncomfortable sense of humor as well as a slight mix of horror. I say “horror” because I was afraid for the lead character’s safety. At one point I wondered what else Joe is willing to give when, really, she has nothing else to offer.
Since her husband cannot keep up with her sexual needs, they make an arrangement that will essentially free her to have sex with other men. Her choice is a black man wearing a green jacket who does not speak a word of English. In the motel room, two men enter the door: the man she had her eyes on and his brother-in-law. She is surprised by this because she had arranged to meet only with one. Still, she welcomes the opportunity.
It is a very funny sequence because the way it unfolds is far from anything many of us might come to expect. The writer-director uses humor in a subversive way: by taking the subject’s addiction to sex as a template and applying a droplet of comedy on the surface, we are given a chance to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and at ourselves.
There is a level of irony to it. Through a solemn narration, we learn that Joe is expecting a sexy and steamy encounter since the language barrier will force them to focus on their bodies and to determine what they need from one another telepathically. Instead, it almost turns into some sort of farce. Body parts flopping about—utilizing quick close-ups of sexual organs from time to time—made me snicker and then laugh uncontrollably. The scene has a two-fold function: to take us out of the situation by creating a lightness and to leave us off-balanced for what is about to come.
It has been a while since I have encountered a character that shook me to the very core. K (Jamie Bell, absolutely brilliant here—my level of admiration to his performances matches that of Uma Thurman’s in “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I”) is one that I will remember for a long time. We learn close to nothing about him but the things he ends up doing with Joe made me watch some of the images through my fingers.
I don’t consider myself to be a prude, but the erotic practice of dominance and submission has never appealed to me. (Perhaps never will.) So to watch someone being whipped—causing welts, bruises, and wounds—and being smacked across the face—the writer-director ensures that we see it all unfold front and center… with the accompanying sounds—made me feel very uneasy. Still, I was unable to look away.
“Nymphomaniac: Vol. II,” like BDSM, is not for everyone. It is challenging, weird, sad, and at times confusing with what it really wants to say or be. But for me, just about everything about it works because even though the range of topics it wishes to tackle is not pretty, it encourages us to understand—maybe even empathize—with the lead character. When one considers to look at the big picture, Joe is an outcast. The outcast in us should be able to relate to her on some level.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
After picking up groceries from a nearby store, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) comes across a woman, bruised and bloody from what appears to be a beating, whose body is sprawled across a cobblestone path. He attempts to wake her and although she is conscious, he tells her that he will call an ambulance. The woman insists he does not. Seligman remains concerned so he takes her to his home so she can recuperate.
The woman tells the man that her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When asked about her life, she casually begins to talk about the moment in time when she, as a little girl, discovered the pleasure that lies between her legs.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” has a strange calm about it despite having a protagonist with an unquenchable need for sex right at the center. Movies with a lesser vision and control tend to cheapen the subject but this picture commands a high level of elegance and grace. Because the approach is serious, we are piqued by the woman—her history, the way she thinks, and the manner in which she perceives herself—rather than judging and dismissing her right away.
A series of scenes like two teenage girls (Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe, and Sophie Kennedy Clark) having a contest on who can have sex with more men while aboard a train is handled with maturity, a pinch of humor, and sadness. We observe a pattern: Joe’s hesitance to flirt with complete strangers, Joe’s competitive nature taking over, the sexual act, and then Joe’s feelings of shame and empowerment. The girls regather. The pattern continues until they meet a man in first class who is on his way to see his wife.
Many of the situations, in my opinion, are not meant to be titillating. After all, though the majority of the picture consists of recollections, it always goes back to the older Joe who seems very unhappy, almost angry at herself for giving away too much of what she ought to have valued more. There are even a few lines which suggest that she thinks she is a bad person. But, I must admit, several times I was excited by the young Joe, wonderfully played by Martin with utmost solemnity and natural beauty, enjoying a man—sometimes a total of seven or eight men in one night—being inside her. However, I am not suggesting that the film is any way pornographic.
Yes, we see male and female genitals both in flaccid and erect states but there is a dignified story behind these images. To tackle the subject of nymphomania without showing the tools for sex or certain erogenous zones would have taken away an air of reality on some level. Not once do we feel that the writer-director is taking advantage of his actors. On the contrary, they are pushed to deliver good performances. For instance, I have never considered Shia LaBeouf, who plays one of Joe’s lovers, of really having a chance of becoming a “serious” performer. To my surprise, I enjoyed his interpretation of the character even though I was not completely convinced by his accent. To me, the magic is always in the eyes and LaBeouf has got it down.
“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” would not nearly have been so electric if Uma Thurman’s one scene had been excluded. She plays a scorned woman who learns that her husband is moving in with another younger belle. Her strategy: to follow her spouse to the whore’s abode—with her three young sons. The direction commands a masterclass confidence because the scene is allowed to escalate in tone and build emotional momentum to the point where it is very uncomfortable—reflected by the increasingly manic movement of the camera as well as characters who do not quite know how to respond to the livid wife.
★ / ★★★★
A planet named Melancholia, about twice or thrice the size of Earth, was discovered to have been hiding behind the sun and was on its way toward us. Meanwhile, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) were newly married, left the church, and encountered limousine problems. Consequently, they were very late to their own party which reduced Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, and John (Keifer Sutherland), Claire’s husband, barely containing their frustration. The guests had been waiting for the couple to arrive for over two hours. Although Justine had a smile on her face throughout the party, much of her energy was spent trying to keep her major depression hidden. “Melancholia” astounded me in the worst ways possible. Did the end of the world montage prior to the title card needed to be so pretentious? For what felt like eternity, several characters, one curiously observing electricity coming out of her fingers, consistently occupied gorgeous backdrops but everything was in painful slow motion as the orchestra bombarded our eardrums, urging us that we were watching something epic. On the contrary, I found the sequence completely unnecessary not only because it was trying too hard to impress, but because it extirpated our feelings of anticipation. By confirming that Melancholia would eventually hit our beloved planet, I didn’t feel horror or suspense with or for the characters as they eventually faced the reality that they’d been given. Regardless, I enjoyed select scenes during the wedding party. Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) was fascinating as an aging woman who despised marriage, its rituals, and the confines it set for its participants. As she moped about in the restroom–darkly amusing because it gave John, only caring about how much he’d spent in order to throw a lavish party for the bride, intense rage–and stood bitterly in the corner while everyone celebrated, I was desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, as Justine’s depression became more unbearable for her, nearly everyone treated her even worse, somehow convinced that she was just being selfish. Justine’s family knew about her condition. It didn’t make sense why they weren’t more understanding especially since it was one of the most important days of her life. If the writer-director, Lars von Trier, had given us more background information about Justine’s relationship with her family, their cold disregard for her could have made sense. Since the screenplay didn’t allow us to understand in which angle each important family member was coming from, whether the sentiment was good or bad, I wondered why they even bothered to show up for the wedding. Halfway through, the film changed perspective. Instead of Justine’s crippling depression, it focused more on Claire’s increasing trepidation of dying. She obsessively checked the telescope and I cared less each time. I began to think about how other people from different cultures and different classes, maybe those who lived in the flavelas of Rio de Janeiro, saw the apocalypse. “Melancholia” was plagued with symbols of depression and doom but they had very little impact. I found myself needing to take Prozac because I began to feel depressed, not because of its subject matter but because I started to suspect that von Trier was eventually blasé with his work. For a movie that contained two planets–and sisters–colliding, it was insipid and, ironically, prosaic.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the very controversial Lars von Trier, “Antichrist” tells the story of a couple (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to the woods appropriately called Eden to deal with the recent death of their son. Dafoe’s character, a psychiatrist, uses various therapeutic methods to help his wife go through grief, pain and despair (the titles of the first three chapters of the picture). Gainsbourg’s character believes that her husband doesn’t much care for the death of their son. It must be said that this is not the kind of film for everyone. In fact, I think this movie is made for certain groups of people who can take heavy levels of very sexually intimate scenes, violence and symbolism. The way von Trier focused on his two characters fascinated me from start to finish. He was not afraid to show them at their most vulnerable to the point where it was almost painful for us to watch; it really felt like I was watching a real couple who lost their only child. From the synopses I read, I got the impression that the bulk of the story was going to be rooted in the supernatural. It wasn’t at all. In fact, although it did reference to an evil force residing in the woods, the focus was more on the psychological breakdown of the wife. In order to make the strange happenings more believable (and more terrifying), von Trier pushes “ordinariness”–both the nature and the unknown in our minds–to the extreme until it almost felt like we were dealing with something extraordinary. That strategy in storytelling is something that I don’t often come across and ultimately that’s why this picture worked. I also had a lot of fun watching this movie because I noticed it having some similarities with “Dogvile” (also directed by von Trier). For instance, the breaking of the figurines (something that Nicole Kidman’s character considered a part of herself) in comparison to breaking certain body parts and Kidman’s character being tied to a heavy metal contraption like Dafoe’s character. The similarities made me think beyond the violence of this film and really tried to think about what the director was trying to convey. I loved that each scene had a purpose and he was not at all afraid to take risks–risks that may give the audiences to laugh uncontrollably. A lot of people thought that “Antichrist” had an open-ended ending. I did not get that feeling. I thought it came full circle: the final feelings and images highlighted the surrealism of the first two chapters. My wish is for less adventurous moviegoers to see this picture and not get distracted by the sexuality and violence because it offers a real insight about what it means to grieve in its core.