30 May 2010

Breaking the Waves / Twist and Shout

Yesterday and today I watched two Danish films—Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) and Bille August's Twist and Shout (Tro, håb og kærlighed, 1984, lit. "Faith, hope, and love").

Breaking the Waves
I watched Breaking the Waves first and was caught wondering, "What am I going to write about this movie?" It was good, but not great. I liked the style of the film and I thought it was interesting, but I wasn't sure if I really agreed with the final message. There was something unsettling about it.

See, the basic plot is this: A Calvinist woman named Bess marries the "outsider" Jan. Jan is sort of your everyday man, working for a decent day's pay on an oil rig. Bess is something else entirely. She's naive and weird. She talks to God, which isn't weird in and over itself but for the fact that she vocalizes both sides of the conversation. When she's talking in the voice of God, she makes her voice sound deep and often says things like, "Silly little Bess." The whole thing is unnerving, and it takes a turn for the worse when Jan has to go work on the oil rig for 10 days. She freaks out the very first day and is so distraught over being away from him for a week and a half that she prays to God to bring him back to her as soon as possible.

And so, immediately after her prayer, Jan is victim to a serious accident aboard the rig which leaves him paralysed from the neck down. Bess talks to God again, and finds out that he's testing her love for Jan. So what is she supposed to do to prove her love, you might ask? Why, by having sex with random strangers and then describing it to Jan so that he can imagine it's him and regain the will to live.

The plot is, obviously, rather bizarre, and the ending just pushes it to a new level. I don't want to ruin it for anyone who intends to watch this movie, but I will say that the final message seems to be that she was right to do what she did and that even though the Calvinists reject her, God finally accepts her. Th story is rather disturbing in that regard, but then I realize that it's sort of like a modern day version of the story of Job.

All and all, it was worth seeing, and I believe it was a well-made and thought-provoking film. However, I can't help but feel uneasy about it. The ending felt like it set up a false dichotomy between Bess's delusional idea of love and the controlling, puritanical Calvinist church. Neither side has a very healthy understanding of life, love, or religion.

But the one other problem I had with the film stuck me when I was watching Twist and Shout: The characters in Breaking the Waves are not like real people. There are weird, and seem to have been invented to fit the parable.

Twist and Shout
What I loved so much about Bille August's Twist and Shout is that the story and the characters are just so real. I am reminded of a quote from Krzysztof Kieśowski concerning documentaries. I cannot find the exact quote now, so I will paraphrase. Essentially, he said that the documentary form is a difficult moral problem, because the most interesting stories are also the most personal and intimate. If you tell these stories when they are real, when you record the drama of everyday life as it happens, then are you using these people? Is something so intimate, with people at their most naked and raw, really meant to be shown to the world? Fiction provides us the ability to mimic reality without it being at the expense of others.

Twist and Shout is a good example of this. There is nothing in the film that could not have really happened, and that's what lends it such beauty. Despite the fact that the problems of the characters were much milder and tame compared to those in Breaking the Waves, I felt for them more. I felt true sorrow when they were at their lowest and joy when things would go their way. I wanted things to work out for them. I wanted them to be content. The story moved me, yes, even to tears. There is one scene in particular that is so powerful and emotional. It's tame compared to Breaking the Waves, but it's also so much more real. I could identify with the characters.

The plot follows four teenagers by the names of Björn, Erik, Kirsten, and Anna. Björn and Erik share a strong friendship that is unbroken by the drama that surrounds them. Kirsten is your typical good girl, and she's in love with Björn, but Björn is far more interested in the more free-spirited Anna. Erik, on the other hand, is after Kirsten. However, Erik is also wrapped up in his own family drama involving his sick mother and controlling, over-protective father. While it may sound like it's primarily a romantic story, I'd say that it really isn't. The "love" named in the original Danish title seemed to refer less to the passionate, romantic love quadrangular but more to the deeper and longer lasting examples: the loving friendship between Björn and Erik, and the love between Erik and his mother. [Spoiler: Highliht the text to read it]This is really driven home when Björn, about to put the engagement ring on Kirsten's finger, runs to hug Erik as he enters the room. When he discovers that Erik is finally standing up to his father and taking his mother where he knows she will be better cared for, Björn vows to go with him instead.[End spoiler]

The Danish title is particularly more apt at describing the movie, as Twist and Shout only references that the film is set during Beatlemania and thus the characters try to emulated the rockband. It's a bit of period setting, but much less central to the story. Faith, hope, and love is a direct reference to 1 Corinthians 13:13. In fact, the entirety of 1 Corinthians 13 fits the film rather well, and not in the stereotypical wedding sort of way, but in a deeper understanding of what that passage is asking of us.

It is interesting that, aside from the Danish title, this film has very little reference to religion, while Breaking the Waves abounds in it. However, I think that the final message of Twist and Shout shows a much more nuanced and mature understanding of religion than von Trier's film. This is the first film that I think I can honestly say can be read just as fairly as a Christian story or as a secular humanist story.

I suppose in some ways that it is the sort of humanism that I see the teachings of Christ that appeal to me, even if I dislike a lot of the people who claim to believe in him and follow him.

At any rate, this is a fantastic film and will likely be ranked very high in my lists of favourite films. It's both beautifully and brutally honest. Unless you have a strong aversion to subtitles, I highly suggest you watch this film. I loved it.

And if you do have a strong aversion to subtitles, get over it. Here's a trick to do so: Start watching television with the English subtitles and practice reading along while you watch. You'll develop the skill without getting frustrated when you can't keep up and therefore don't understand what's going on.