Thursday 10 August 2023

Lars and the real girl: "Breaking the Waves"

Distributor Curzon's late summer Lars von Trier retrospective opens with what was at the time a transitional film, and one that now invites reading as two films in one. von Trier's breakthrough films - the so-called "E-Trilogy" of 1984's The Element of Crime, 1987's Epidemic and 1991's Europa - displayed the attitudes and assimilated aesthetic of a smart-arsed film school graduate, flaunting everything he'd studied to that point. 1996's Breaking the Waves, by contrast, was von Trier's first mature work, in as much as any self-identifying enfant terrible can ever be said to have signed off on a mature work: it had a chaptered story, and characters who seemed fleshed out, more than mere gestures or pawns in a plot. Though the film's portrait-like chapter headings prefigure imagery to come, scene by scene von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle tone down the rampant stylisation of the E-Trilogy, instead cultivating a beigey 1970s look; in so doing, they refocus our attention on the performances, and what would become recurring Trierian themes: the clash between generations, and within individuals and society, the potential and frailty of human bodies. (They are the themes you'd expect from someone who came of age during the counterculture in an especially liberal state.) The question with BTW has always been how seriously we're meant to take the mock-Biblical parable at its centre. As has generally been his wont, von Trier has framed the film publicly as a stunt or prank intended to sucker us. Yet even a joke has a way of revealing a worldview, and this retrospective seems likely to expose how rapidly this director's gurgling media-kid cynicism gave way to pessimism, and how deeply that pessimism became ingrained. Breaking the Waves opens with a wedding party and ends with a miracle, however insincere; by the time of 2011's Melancholia (returning to cinemas August 26) a wedding party was a prelude to the end of the world. One von Trier found himself feted to the rooftops at Cannes; the other was sent packing, having been declared persona non grata.

Fortunately, this is as much an Emily Watson film as it is a Lars von Trier film. The latter's work has long been complicated - and made fascinatingly complicated - by his dealings with actresses. Broadly, he has two types. There are the masochists (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst), ready to lie down and take what's coming to them, confident their suffering will be weaponised dramatically; and there are the warriors (Björk, Nicole Kidman) willing to put up more of a fight - to assert that what goes on within a story and on a set isn't just (that loathsomely masculine word) banter, that there should be limits to what a writer-director can get away with. Watson is somehow both: she makes a heartfelt effort to understand Bess's life and thinking, the better to sell the character's dealmaking with her God. For her - and this has become clearer with a quarter-century of distance - this is a story about a young woman's discovery of sex. Bess starts the film not just naive but actively virginal; she gains experience beneath the heaving buttocks of Stellan Skarsgård's lusty oil worker Jan; begins to make choices pertaining to her own sexuality; and finds out - the von Trier way, which is to say the hard way - how cruel this world can be when faced with the sexual woman. Doomy though it is, this unsentimental education counts among the most complete character arcs in any von Trier project - and the basis of a story that, on some level, has been properly engineered and told. Much of it plays out on Watson's features, variously observed as searching, dreamy, enraptured, unravelled and agonised; it now looks like a tentative (thus touching) rehearsal for the blunt-force treatment von Trier visited upon Gainsbourg during Nymphomaniac (back in cinemas next week). That these two-and-a-half hours still compel as they do is down to the fight going on within this material, between a man overseeing a sniggering wind-up and a woman who believes in this script, this role, and the transcendent possibilities they might contain. The von Trier stance has been to take everything with a smirk and a wink and a sizeable pinch of salt; Watson simply invites us to take Bess's plight at face value. In this heavily ironised context, that might just strike you as a miracle in itself.

Breaking the Waves is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema. 

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