Sex and Longing
Breaking the Waves and The English Patient.
Breaking the Waves
Directed by Lars Von Trier
The English Patient
Directed by Anthony Minghella
To anyone familiar with the work of the controversial Danish director Lars Von Trier, the news that his latest film is a tribute to true love sounds as improbable as an announcement that Quentin Tarantino's next project will chronicle the friendship of a brave blind boy and his dog. Von Trier's last film to reach America, Zentropa (1991), was a doom-laden thriller about a weak-willed American in post-World War II Germany who falls in with a Nazi temptress and becomes an unwitting agent of evil. The performances were chilly and monotonic, and, in any case, they took a back seat to voice-overs (very postmodern, very early '90s) that called attention to all the hypnotic tricks cinema has up its sleeves. "I'm a film designer, a film stylist," Von Trier informed the New York Times in 1995. Like his movie's shadowy, depopulated setting, this pose seemed to declare that all the big events (in the world and in the movies) had already passed us by; all that was left to do was artfully recombine the dregs.
But right from the opening shot of Breaking the Waves, which lingers on the face of an unknown woman as she registers first pride, then tipsy pleasure, then anxiety that some secret possession will be snatched away, Von Trier seems to be looking for the first time at life, not just the movies. The camera is hand-held, approximating the look of a yellowed home movie (the cinematography is by Robby Müller, who shot Paris, Texas); the woman's straggly mouse-brown hair and knitted cap set the action squarely in the early 1970s. Our heroine is Bess (Emily Watson), a sweet, virginal, and possibly simple-minded naif who lives in a desolate corner of Scotland, in a small town that is essentially a Calvinist sect. As the film opens, Bess is called before the town elders, an unforgiving huddle of bug-eyed men with white beards. It seems she has fallen in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgärd), a worldly Swede who works at an offshore oil rig. The elders' disapproval notwithstanding, they are dead set on marrying.
Given the raw realism and the haunted Scottish setting, one wonders whether Von Trier was inspired by some bleak 19th-century English novel. The story even unfolds in chapters, with titles like "Bess Gets Married," and Bess' sensible sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge, who played the angry punk nymphomaniac in Mike Leigh's Naked), parts her dark hair down the middle and pulls it back in a drab bun that makes her look like a fourth Brontë sister. But when an outrageous book like Wuthering Heights pitted passion against unforgiving society, it dealt with a somewhat plausible predicament of its time. With the swinging '70s as a backdrop, Bess' upbringing by these punitive Scottish zealots feels positively exotic. She's so uncorrupted by Western ways she might as well be an Incan princess.
A better comparison might be tragic opera, with its melodramatic swoons. Von Trier wants to explore passion in uncomfortable detail; he's searching for a kind of documentary anti-detachment--a style that seems neutral and direct, but turns out to be just as steeped in spectacle as his previous work. In places where a composer would insert a rich melody, Von Trier plants something private and unsettling, such as Bess kneeling in church and carrying on both sides of a conversation with God. (He advises her to cultivate a less grasping, more selfless love for Jan. We're not sure whether she has a special line to heaven or is merely a loon.) Often, the provocative element is just straight-out sex: After the wedding, instead of a blissful lovers' duet, we get to witness Bess' highly satisfactory deflowering. Later, when Jan has to go back to work on the rig and the pair are temporarily separated, instead of an anguished aria we get an ache-filled phone call, in which the newly awakened Bess whispers to her husband in a full Scottish brogue, "Yer sooo huge!"
Eventually the porn latent in all this peekaboo steps out from behind the curtain and begins to drive the plot. Bess prays to God to send Jan home from the rig, and God grants her wish in the form of a crippling blow to his skull. Jan, now a quadriplegic on painkillers, asks Bess to take a lover or two and recount her adventures to him. More uncertainty here: Does he want to set her free, or have the drugs temporarily turned him into a crazy sadist? Either way, she'll do anything to help. So, after failing to seduce a kind doctor, she begins riding buses and plunging her hand into the pockets of surprised but grateful strangers.
Plenty of twists follow this last development, but this is a case where telling more ruins the story--which makes it hard to give Breaking the Waves a complete review, because after two of the more sordidly gripping hours in recent film memory, Von Trier tops things off with an outrageous and memorable climax. Let's just say that God, who has hitherto been treated as a bugaboo planted in Bess' mind, makes a surprise appearance. Audiences are likely to embrace Breaking the Waves--they certainly did at the New York Film Festival earlier this fall--as something rare and fierce and innovative, a passport into the depths of passion, but some people will reconsider when they get home. They might want to look at the interview in the Times, in which Von Trier went on to explain that "I was a projectionist and I was always watching the audience--that's how I know what works." They might come to think of the film as a date with an attractive manipulator: At first he seems to know all about love, but he turns out to know only "what works," and to think, wrongly, that this is enough.
Anthony Minghella's incredibly beautiful The English Patient is an excellent argument against Von Trier's one-man cult of innovativeness. Minghella's first film, Truly Madly Deeply (1991), was a moving story about an Englishwoman devastated by the death of her boyfriend, but it was damaged by a kind of yuppie British p.c.: The couple had not only been deeply in love, but they were liberals with good taste. He played the cello; she befriended Salvadoran refugees. In adapting the Canadian Michael Ondaatje's poetic, abstract novel, Minghella again stresses the theme of grief, but the movie is set during World War II, in Italy and Cairo and the Egyptian desert, and so many people from so many different backgrounds drift through that lifestyle issues fall by the wayside.
A t the center is the title character (Ralph Fiennes), a nameless invalid burned beyond recognition (prosthetics by Jim Henson Productions), and Hana (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse who takes him to an abandoned Italian monastery to care for him until he dies. In lush, eventful flashbacks, we learn that the Fiennes character was a linguist and explorer in Egypt, where he fell in love with Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the beautiful wife of a friend. In the present, we see Binoche watchfully nurturing her charge, and also trying to keep on wanting to live when the war has killed everyone she cared about. The acting of this central trio is brilliant, in part because the crisscrossing of these and other stories and the gorgeous backdrops take some of the weight off: The characters are free to be flawed without losing our interest. Fiennes plays his explorer as remote, even abrupt; Thomas is brittle without being the cartoon snob she's usually cast as; Binoche is earthy, less glamorous and more open than she's been to date.
Beyond the acting, there's not the tiniest sliver of new technique to be found, but the editing and the score--part classical, part Hungarian gypsy--are seen to with loving care. The whole film is permeated with tenderness for its hurt characters, whom Minghella sees as just a small slice in the fellowship of people who love and suffer--unlike Von Trier, who makes voyeur's entertainment of these universal verbs, and who, no matter how close he brings you, makes you feel like you're peeking through binoculars from across the street.
The English patient (Ralph Fiennes) dances with Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas) in Egypt (30 seconds):
Sarah Kerr writes for the New York Review of Books and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications.