Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Vamp or Not? Breaking the Waves

This is a 1996 film by auteur Lars von Trier, which was nominated for the Cannes Palme d’Or and won the Grand prize of the Jury. So why look at it here? In a foot note to “André Gide, Nosferatu and the Hydraulics of Youth and Age” Naomi Segal suggests that, “An unusual version of the vampire myth can be found in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves”. (Undead Memory, P86) Good enough for a look-see.

The film is set in a remote Scottish village in the 1970s and focuses on Bess (Emily Watson, Happy Family). As the film is starting she is talking to the (male) elders of her church and explains that his name is Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) but the elders have not heard of him. He is not from there and they suggest that they do not encourage matrimony with outsiders and ask her to name one good thing the outsiders have brought them. Music she replies.

Jan and Bess
Jan and Bess get married and we discover that Jan works on the oil rigs and Bess is overly innocent it seems. She is prone to childish outbursts (for instance she hits out at him when the helicopter bringing him and his wedding guests is late – though the action is less spoilt and more naïve – Segal suggests she is Sancta simplicitas) and a virgin. Jan is her first love and she has prayed for love (we’ll come back to that). As things develop we find out that when her brother died she ended up being sectioned (involuntarily incarcerated in a mental health hospital) – her sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) is a Sister at the nearest hospital and, despite being an outsider, remained in the village after her husband’s death for Bess’ sake.

an elder
Again, as things develop we discover that Bess has conversations with God and God replies – at least Bess replies for God, changing her voice. It seems to the viewer that she is delusional to some extent, perhaps even schizophrenic (and giving vocalisation to the voices). Perhaps it is down to the oppressive religion, which is patriarchal and certainly misogynistic – women may not speak in services and may not attend funerals. At said funerals the priest (Jonathan Hackett) condemns sinners to Hell and those who transgress the morality of the church might be cast out of the church and be dead to the locals.

Jan injured
Bess’ bliss is broken when Jan has to return to the rig. During his absence she is criticised for being overly emotional about him being away and eventually she asks God to return him to her. She asks herself (in God’s voice) whether she is sure. At sea there is an accident on the rig and Jan is injured. He is brought back and operated on and does survive but is paralysed. He asks Bess to sleep with other men and tell him about it – an act of love that Bess believes can heal him even though she does not like the idea.

searching out encounters
Her sexual encounters are distressing for her and her actions come to the attention of the elders, Dodo and a doctor (Adrian Rawlins) who has fallen for Bess. He believes Jan is essentially abusing her (possibly due to his condition) and eventually attempts to have her sectioned again. Yet from Bess’ point of view when Jan relapses and she does as he wishes it brings him back to some level of health – hence the fact that, at first, she lies about the encounters (making them up) and eventually actually goes through with them; in turn they become more and more dangerous. Is it really making him better though?

Emily Watson as Bess
MASSIVE SPOILERS – Jan refuses further treatment and it is thought he will die until Bess’ terminal sexual encounter with a sadistic sailor (Udo Kier) from whom she had barely escaped previously and who she goes to willingly. She dies but we then see Jan actually ambulatory again, looking to bury his wife. It seems that he has recovered. The community had turned her away and at her (fake, as Jan steals her body and puts stones in the coffin) burial she is condemned to Hell and yet the Doctor suggests, at the inquest into her death, that rather than calling her neurotic or psychotic – as he had written in his report – he should have written good – for that is why she acted as she did, because she was intrinsically good.

attacked by the local kids
So, a vampire? We know that in the basic model, drawn from Stoker and expanded in many of the films based upon Dracula, the male vampire feeds upon a female victim and in that act of penetration/bloodletting ultimately hyper-sexualises her. In this Jan penetrates Bess on their wedding day (in the toilets at the reception) and leaves a stain of blood on her wedding dress. After his injury his encouragement/manipulation causes her to become a sexual creature (called a tart by stone throwing village children). However, Bess says of her encounters “I don't make love with them, I make love with Jan and I save him from dying.” We can also quote Taylor (2012, The Urge Towards Love is an Urge Towards (Un)death: Romance, masochistic desire and postfeminism in the Twilight novels, quoted in Race in the Vampire Narrative) who says that for vampires “Sexual hunger becomes conflated with literal hunger.”

The results of her sacrifice can’t actually be argued with and the film ends with a truly supernatural/spiritual happening that underlines her ultimate goodness and suggests that she might truly have been speaking to God. But if she is the vector, then it is Jan who would be the vampire, feeding of her goodness and perverting it (or at least trying to, arguably she maintains her innocence in the face of her encounters). Ultimately her death gives him life (and more, he can walk again, can even return to the rig, though he uses a crutch). So, whether he is a sexual vampire – perhaps even an incubus who feeds/heals through her sacrifice, made for love – or not depends on your view. I think there is a case for saying so. Certainly, however, the film plays with a trope that is out of the genre and at the very least is of genre interest.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

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