The Bayley Film Club: Lars von Trier

With Lars von Trier we had to misbehave a little with our ground rule of two films per director, due to his love of trilogies. This week is all about Lars von Trier and his Golden Heart Trilogy.

WEEK 7:

Director: Lars von Trier

Film 1: Breaking the Waves

Film 2: The Idiots

Film 3: Dancer in the Dark

 [SPOILER ALERT]

Breaking the Waves

Author: Agsy E Drapinska

Anticipation: 2
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 5

Score: 11

Breaking the Waves’ is the first film from Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy. Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), whose story we are following here lives in a strict, religious community in Scotland. She meets Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), and despite him being an outsider she gets permission from the elders to marry him. We do not know a whole lot about Jan. Just that he works on an oil rig and doesn’t speak much. Nevertheless, the couple seems to be happy. Quickly, the viewer realizes that Bess is different than everyone else. She is wired in a very simple way, with only three variables God – Love/Jan – Community. With a history of mental illness on her record, she focuses on what she understands – God. She explains everything to herself through him. All that is happening to her is his doing:

  • She was good – he awarded her with love, the greatest prices of them all,
  • She prayed for Jan to return to her from the rig – God sends him home, so what he’s paralyzed,
  • She doesn’t follow ‘instructions’ – God is punishing her by worsening Jan’s condition…,
  • Etc.
    The good old ‘Old Testament’ with all it’s martyrs, tests of faith and painful obedience – how fun, right? 

Bess’ sister in law, Dodo McNeill (Katrin Cartlidge) seems to be the only person who realizes the seriousness of her condition, she’s the one who points out to Jan, that she can be very easily manipulated, hoping that he will use that having his wife’s well-being in mind. Jan’s following favor towards Bess – asking her to sleep with other man and then come to him and tell him all about it – triggers to motion events that neither of them – Dodo nor Jan – could have anticipated. The reason is that they are both outsiders and they simply cannot wrap their heads around the idea that someone can be so devoted to their faith that majority of their energy falls into figuring out links between their own actions and the will of God.

Bess continues her crusade convinced it’s the only way to save Jan. The community banishes her for her scandalous behavior and Jan convinced by the local doctor signs the papers to close her in a mental hospital. The betrayed woman decides to sacrifice herself one final time in a belief of the worsening condition of Jan’s health. Raped and beaten to death she dies on a hospital bed. Throwing one last look at Jan, talking with her mother and sister in law gives her closure. She dies happy that her death has meaning. 

Soon after, Jan walks again, thanks to Bess undoubtedly. Was his request driven by evil, an outcome of strong drugs and brain surgery, or lack of understanding his own wife? We’ll never know. Same as we will never know what exactly Bess suffered. However, the doctor’s comment about her condition during a trial that followed the events of her death provides a decent answer – She suffered from being too good. 

The film is divided into 7 chapters: Bess Gets Married, Life With Jan, Life Alone,  Jan’s Illness, Doubt, Faith, Bess’ Sacrifice, and The Funeral. All of which appear as interludes with pictures that bring sentimental feelings to mind, the kind you experience looking at Monet’s paintings; accompanied by songs by Elton John, David Bowie, or Leonard Cohen. There is some kind of mystery about these interludes, there seems to be something more, something hidden. Our brains tuned to continuity will always try to make these connections.

The Idiots

Author: Agsy E Drapinska

Anticipation: 4
Enjoyment: 3
Retrospect: 3

Score: 10

‘The Idiots’ is the second film from the Golden Heart Trilogy. We meet a group of people who pretend to be mentally disabled, for fun. The idea itself is something most would consider as ethically unacceptable. 

Our story begins when the group welcomes a new member – Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) – who by chance runs into them while one of their performances. Karen seems quite frightened and distant towards everybody but she sticks around enjoying the company of new friends who seem not to care about any kind of social boundaries, do not judge or ask questions. Later we find out the reason why this setup suited Karen perfectly.

‘The Idiots‘ , appeared to me at first as a bunch of people without purpose who just picked a very unusual way of spending time. But we soon realize that these are intelligent human beings, some of which lead successful careers, and still, they go about trying to ‘find their inner idiot’. Their leader, Stoffer (Jens Albinus) begins to push others, claiming they are not trying hard enough, and are not taking the matter seriously (!!) enough. Oh, dear irony! Stoffer’s anger was driven by jealousy since he was the only one that seemed not to have any other reality to come back to when he wasn’t fooling around. While the others had careers, families, responsibilities – anything worth coming back to when they will be finished with being an idiot. Which, of course, eventually happened, the group fell into pieces and they never saw each other again. 

The last scenes unravel the specifics of Karen’s situation and put the narrative in a new perspective. Lars von Trier is trying to leave the viewer with no available weapons to judge his characters, almost as he would ask ‘who are you to decide?’.

The film primarily opens a discussion about the disabled and forces the viewer to reconsider our own feelings, attitude, and behavior towards them – am I treating them as equals, really? Do I feel uncomfortable around them and if yes, why is that? Would I object living next door to an institution for disadvantaged? Secondarily, the film is about freedom, madness, and coping with life and it’s tragedies – something that we all need to put up with and as many people, as many coping mechanisms. Who then has the authority of saying which ways are acceptable and which aren’t?

Dancer in the Dark

Author: Agsy E Drapinska

Anticipation: 5
Enjoyment: 5
Retrospect: 5

The Perfect Score: 15

Dancer in the Dark’ is the third and final part of the Golden Heart Trilogy. Dear reader, ‘Dancer in the Dark’ is the best one. Out of the trilogy and possibly out of the Lars von Trier’s whole filmography. It lands comfortably in my own top 5 of all time and definitely wins the title of the saddest picture I have ever seen. Well deserved Palme d’Or in 2000 and Best Actress award for Björk.

It tells us a story of a young woman – Selma (Björk) who emigrated to the States with her son. Selma is suffering from short sight which is progressing rapidly leading to blindness. Living a simple life of a factory worker whose passion is music, Selma is saving every penny for her son’s operation who is suffering from the same disease. Her primary goal is to save her son from becoming blind, anything else comes secondary. 

We could say that Selma, commits one big mistake – trusting the wrong person. After this takes place, we observe the story slowly tightening (metaphorically and literally). As usual with for Lars von Trier – we witness how people are dragging themselves into a spiral of poor decisions that quickly leaves them with no other choice than to keep going deeper and deeper into the inevitable disaster.

On the screen we might recognize some faces that appeared in previous films of the trilogy (‘Breaking the Waves’ or ‘The Idiots’) – Stellan Skarsgård, Jean-Marc Barr, Jens Albinus – along with some big names: Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse. All give an impressive performance, but most importantly – Björk – who is absolutely great. 

Music plays a very important role in ‘Dancer in the Dark’. It binds the story, gives it rhythm, and adds another dimension. Love for music makes Selma joyful and pure like a child, helps her get through the routine of everyday life and any obstacles. Music, in the end, saves her. ‘Dancer in the Dark’ is a musical, and  In musicals, nothing dreadful ever happens.’, right? Not this time.

 

Breaking the Waves

Author: N A Tonge

Anticipation: 4
Enjoyment: 5
Retrospect: 5

Score: 14

The thread that links the ‘Golden Heart’ trilogy is the simple and kind character of the heroine – too good to be living in such a cruel world. In Von Trier’s own words they’re about ‘good women overwhelmed by a bad world’.

Set in a tight-knit religious community on the Scottish coast in the 1970s, ‘Breaking the Waves’ character-based focus. It is structured around seven chapters, which focus on a period of the life of Bess McNeil.

The audience is made aware that Bess has been affected by the psychiatric treatment undergone following the death of her brother. It is suggested that this has contributed towards her godliness. 

Bess speaks to God and then channels God’s answers through herself. It is not clear whether she does this because of the treatment – as is common in the trilogy, elements are hazy and left unexplained. 

The local Calvinist church receives Bess’ absolute devotion, she both works and prays there. However, it acts of the cold oppressor to any member of the community, who decides to stray from the rules in their harsh and boring version of religion. 

Bess marries Jan, a north sea oil worker, which the church disapproves of on account of Jan’s religious unfaithfulness. 

The wedding guest comprises a mix of beer drinking oil rig workers and ‘decent’ sober members of the church. This scene demonstrates the closed-minded moralizing of the church. 

Jan takes Bess’ virginity and they embark on a few weeks of lovemaking in their new home until Jan is paralyzed from the neck down following an incident on an oil rig. 

Jan asks Bess to sleep with other men and to tell him about it. It is not clear whether this cruel request is made only for Jans’ sexual gratification at Bess’s expense, or whether it is an effort to liberate Bess from a life of having a husband, who she is unlikely to ever be able to make love to again. 

So is Jan ‘bad’ or ‘good’? It’s quite clear that the childlike Bess’ is vulnerable and easy led. Its’ also suggested that she is quite a bit younger than Jan. Whilst Jan isn’t portrayed as sexually predatory, he is shown to be ‘free and easy’. When it comes to men being portrayed and sexual criminals, Jan doesn’t fit the dominant portrayal often shown in films. 

The doctor’s interest in Bess is also open to scrutiny. He clearly believes that Jan is taking advantage of Bess, and even tries to convince her that he himself is in love with her. However, again, it’s not clear whether this is an effort to get Bess to see the error of her ways in following Jan’s request, or an opportunity to take advantage to Bess now that she has become known for her highly promiscuous activities. 

These activities take the form of Bess essentially becoming a prostitute. The act is ‘bad’ or more correctly ‘unnecessary’ but only to do ‘good’ by her paralyzed husband. Nevertheless, the church makes the decision to excommunicate her from the community as a result. Only her dead brothers’ widow and her doctor stick by her.

She collapses outside the church after being abused and pelted by stones thrown from the village children. The vicar considers helping her but just walks off, leaving her for dead. It would be ‘against the rules’ to show such compassion. 

With nowhere to go, Bess decides to sell her body on a ship she once narrowly escaped from previously, when two sailors attempted to rape her. This time, the same two sailors brutally rape and be beat her to death. 

On her death bed, Bess’ mother, who had previously thrown her out of the house – probably at the request of the church – forgives Bess.

Ultimately, whilst Jan’s request is cruel, Bess doesn’t question it and sees it as her duty to her husband and God. Jan isn’t viewed as ‘bad’ by Bess for starting the chain of events that leads to her untimely death.

Those who are ‘bad’ are the church elders. Those who refuse to give Bess’ a proper funeral. They do not forgive and show no compassion to the heartbroken Bess. Instead, whoever doesn’t follow their rules is cast out and condemned to an eternity in hell. 

Well, in the end, the joke is on them. Bess’ keeps her faith in God. Whilst this does not save her from death, she is given an unofficial sea burial by Jan and his friends. Jan is woken up to be told that her body is not registering on the ship’s sonar. He runs onto the deck and church bells play from the sky – the very church bells that the bearded church elders refused to have fixed. 

In the end, a true belief in faith triumphs over oppressive rules and regulations. A reminder of the true purpose of religion. 

The Idiots

Author: N A Tonge

Anticipation: 5
Enjoyment: 3
Retrospect: 2

Score: 10

The Idiots‘ (1998) follows Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen The Celebration, in the sequence of film’s produced in accordance with the Dogme 95 ‘Vow of chastity’. It is also the second film in the director’s ‘Golden Heart Trilogy‘. 

Critiqued for it controversy, ‘The Idiots’ follows a group with a shared interest in releasing their ‘inner idiot’. 

In public, members act as if they were disabled through a performance referred to as ‘spazzing’. In each scene they up the ante in an effort to confront different sections of society on their attitudes towards disabled people, or more broadly. their preconceptions on ‘difference’.

The film shot is a ambiguous mockumentary style, twinned with interview clips with members of the group shot in the future, in which they discuss their time in the group and their the feelings that now hold for their past behaviour. 

Whilst for some members ‘spazzing’ seems like a game, for Stoffer, the harsh ideologue of the group, it is used to punish ‘the bourgeoisie’. 

Stoffer – like many ‘educated’, middle-class, social justice millennials, – is a bore and a bully. He employs manipulation and intimation to influence confused (and in one ‘know’ case – mentally ill) members to act as vessels for his frustrations and to fulfil his sexual desires. 

Stoffer is a coward and a user. In one scene, he encourages a member to ‘spaz’ whilst leading a class on art for elderly ‘facist’ female pensioners – breaking the shackles of capitalism indeed! 

On the other hand, the nervous Karen, who accidentally joins the group, is portrayed as innocent, yet ultimately naive. At first, she struggles to understand the reasons behind the groups ‘spazzing’. She accuses the group of making fun of disabled people. Karen is soon roped into the short-term fun lifestyle of the group. 

Karen’s general state is curious to start with, leading the audience to consider whether she herself is disabled – a common theme amongst the heroines in the trilogy. 

Karen’s initial uncertainty of the purpose for ‘spazzing’ raises the question as to whether it is all a childish piss take, or if there is a deeper, possibly politically charged, purpose at play.

The answer is both – depending on the person involved. It seems like the whole ‘releasing the inner idiot’ thing’, is indeed just a group of immature, lost people finding acceptance with those in a similar position. Nevertheless, with the performances of the group primarily being shaped by Stoffer, they undoubtably have a progressive socially political leaning, and seek to punish the middle-class (a term used regularly as a pejorative by members that clearly fall within this very group) views of mentally disabled people, i.e. that they are uncomfortable being around those who do not ‘qualify’. 

One such ‘punishment’ is shown in a scene where Stoffer scares off an overly-stereotyped middle-class couple from buying his uncle’s home. He convinces them that mentally disabled people use the grounds of the house a few times a week and this would have to continue if they bought the house.

The couple feel uncomfortable and make an excuse to leave before even going inside. 

The group are momentarily bought down to earth, when a group of actual disabled people visit them for the day – the reason why they visit is not clear. Many of the group have second thoughts regarding realising their ‘inner idiot’ – probably realising that they are ultimately taking the piss out of disabled people and there are probably better ways of filling whatever void they have in their lives. 

As members lose interest, they move on, probably back in into ‘mainstream life’, and leave Stoffer alone. Thus ‘truth is forced out’ of the character, exposing him as a lonely time-waster.

The film ends with Karen returning to her home, where the audience discovers that her baby son had died and she had missed the funeral whilst living with the group. 

Karen actually ‘starts to spaz’ in front of her family and her husband slaps her. She leaves with another member of the group. Karen clearly needed to escape this life in any event – it wouldn’t have been hard to convince her to escape from the trauma she had suffered.

‘The Idiots’ allowed me to reflect on my own feelings and attitudes towards mentally disabled people. Based on having little experience in being in the company of such a group, I couldn’t say how comfortable I would be when subjected to constant contact. However, whatever my eventual feelings on this, it would in no way be a result of social standing.

Dancer in the Dark

Author: N A Tonge

Anticipation: 2
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 2

Score: 8

In ‘Dancer in the Dark’, Selma a 30ish-year-old Czech immigrant is going blind from a hereditary eye condition. She works in a pressing factory and saves as much money as she can to pay for an operation for her 12-year-old son, Gene, so that he doesn’t suffer the same affliction.  

It is not confirmed whether Gene will definitely get the illness. Their relationship is quite strange. Selma doesn’t give the impression that she is saving out of love for her son. If that was intended, it doesn’t come across in Björk’s performance. 

Preventing Gene from getting the same degenerative eye condition just seems to have been thrown in as a plotline. It’s like she’s just fulfilling a duty. Selma’s real love is the theatre and she regularly daydreams that she is performing in musicals. 

Selma and Gene rent a trailer in the garden of a local police officer, Bill, and his wife, Linda. It is understood that Bill inherited a lot of money and his wife likes people to know they’re ‘comfortable’. By now, we all know how Von Trier feels about people being comfortable, don’t we?

Whilst the relationship between the neighbors is friendly, it is also patronizing. In one scene, Linda allows Selma to keep a chocolate tin, which she thinks is ‘pretty’. 

Selma is not sexually degraded like Bess in ‘Breaking the Waves’, but she is given a childlike and kind character, as with Bess and Karen (The Idiots).  Again it is not clear whether this is a result of mental disability. 

Unbeknownst to his wife, it’s revealed that Bill isn’t as wealthy as he had made out and is in serious financial trouble. Not telling his wife is the first sign of his cowardliness, Bill steals Selma’s money and tells his wife that Selma made a pass at him. He eventually forces Selma to kill him when she asks for the money back but makes it look like murder in front of his wife. Living in poverty is too much for Bill to handle, so he gets a poor immigrant to kill him. A real sadness sets in at this point. Selma has been tricked and trapped, and there is no way out. 

Ultimately, Selma suffers the price of death following a short prison sentence – all for trying to help someone out. A stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky Hollywood world in which Selma has based her opinions of the USA on. 

Whilst I enjoyed ‘Dancer in the Dark’, in retrospect it pales in comparison to ‘Breaking the Waves’, in which the sacrifice made by Bess, in the face of religious repression, gives far more value to the plotline. 

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