My summer with Lars: On uncritically reading "Breaking the Waves" (1996)

Last weekend I revisited LvT’s Breaking the Waves, which made a huge impression on me as a budding film enthusiast back in the late ’90s.  It still feels like a masterpiece to me, and Emily Watson’s performance is as affecting as ever (funnier than I remember, too; apparently vT had her study not only Falconetti in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc but also Giulietta Masina in La Strada, which may account for the more clownish touches).  For grandiosity and sheer ballsiness, I don’t think he matches this movie until Melancholia, which may explain why the two are at the top of my list of favorites.  vT does best when he swings for the fenceswhen he’s using broad strokes and dealing with big ideas.  I’m reminded of a line from Pauline Kael: “Art doesn’t come in measured quantities: it’s got to be too much or it’s not enough.”  The too-muchness about Breaking the Waves—the emotional relentlessness, the visceral acting style, the anachronistic use of 70s pop music, the supernatural touches, the nearly three-hour running time—is what makes it great, too.  

In perusing the body of critical work that the film has generated, again and again we find critics and scholars trying to read it as a work of postmodern irony in which vT’s most out-there touches, namely the “kitschy” landscape shots and that much-debated final image of the heavenly bells (see above), are interpreted as vT’s winks and nods to the audience, places in the text where he undermines any sincerity that the rest of the film might be dealing in.  Jonathan Rosenbaum, for instance—who praises the film—insists that vT is, at bottom, a cynic, and that the film is “a very clever con game, a faux-naif masterpiece” about love and faith as empty concepts in which vT does not really believe.  His reading of the film is typical.  Most of the criticism written about the film wrestles with issues of irony and melodrama, as if vT, notorious prankster that he is, must surely have his tongue in his cheek the whole time that we’re blubbering into our Kleenex. 

But what if we read the film “straight”?  What if it is not a postmodern joke taking shots at faith and love, but rather an example of that most abject of genres, the sincere religious melodrama, in which love and faith are affirmed, against all reason?  What if it is a film made, as David Ansen has intriguingly put it, “without the net of irony”?  I ask these questions because as quick as I so often am to whip out my critical theory toolkit and go to town on whatever film/book/pop song/advertisement that happens to be in front of me at the moment, I have repeatedly found myself getting so uncritically lost in Breaking the Waves that it seems stubbornly immune to critical dismantling.  It may be that the trick vT is playing on us here is, fittingly, not the one we think he’s playing—that instead of giving us the ironic riff on melodrama that we expect, he’s given us the thing itself, in all its beautiful, embarrassing grandeur.        

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