Metaphor, Paradox, and Truth
"How could you take it? How could you keep away from the boys?" (17-19)
Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996)
Points of Reflection
The Bible: Matthew 13:3-23
1. how many different sowing/planting conditions are identified by Jesus in this parable, and what percentage of these conditions lead to a lamentable end (v.3-8)?
2. why might Jesus differentiate among three different degrees of successful growth (v.8)?
3. why does Jesus sometimes speak in parables (v.10-17) instead instead of more directly expressing his ideas (as he does, for instance, in the Sermon on the Mount--see Matthew 5-7)?
4. why might Jesus undertake to explain this cryptic parable so carefully?
The Bible: I Corinthians 7:1-5
1. what does this passage suggest about the divinely ratified purpose of sex?
2. does this passage privilege one gender over the other?
3. under what limited circumstances does Paul suggest it is okay to abstain from physical intimacy?
1. what truths matter most to you, and are they provable empirically?
2. do you believe that similes and metaphors, though patently untrue, can sometimes express a truth better than quantifiable data?
3. is life itself the most valuable thing, in your estimation, or might it ever be worth sacrificing for something greater?
4. for what reasons might you choose not to watch a film recommended by friends?
5. what would it take for you to consider a painting obscene, inappropriate for general consumption?
Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996)
1. does Von Trier prove comfortable with ambiguity in Breaking the Waves, or does he insure that the viewer emerges quite certain about such issues whether Bessie is “not right in the head” (suggested by Dodo) or merely “wants it all” (suggested by Jan)?
2. at what points does Bess look straight into the camera lens? Why do you think Von Trier has her do this, and do any other characters do the same?
3. closely examine the slow-moving shots that serve as chapter breaks/headings, accompanied by American music from the 70s and 80s. How has video artist Per Kirkeby tweaked and altered this footage?
4. when asked whether she can think of anything of real value that the outsiders have brought with them, Bess identifies their music (1). What role is played by the music that runs during the film’s chapter breaks?
5. is the balding priest a strict adherent to the rules laid down by the elders in this Scottish Presbyterian church? Does he ever appear to veer from what they prescribe?
6. is the long-bearded church chairman of the Presbyterian church being playful or hostile w/ Terry when he engages in a drinking competition with him at the dinner that follows the wedding?
7. why does Von Trier carefully establish in the film’s opening that the Presbyterian church in this Scottish community has no bells?
8. can you identify any Biblical principles which have been adopted by the church community depicted in this film; have any core principlels been sidelined?
9. when a church member complains that there are those in the church body “who are prepared to cling to the world instead of fleeing it”—an expostulation that appears to draw upon such Biblical passages as Romans 12:2 and I Timothy 6:11—to what does the word “world” refer?
10. is the cruel behavior of the community’s children condoned by the church?
11. which characters challenge the patriarchal order of this community, and do they appear powerful enough to catalyze actual change?
12. does Bess’ willingness to challenge the gender roles established by the church seem incongruent w/ her general innocence and malleability?
13. Dodo claims that Bess is not strong enough to watch out for herself because she’s not right in the head, and her mother makes the same point: “[Y]ou are not strong. You’re a feeble girl” (28-29, 1:49). Jan, on the other hand, tells Dodo that Bess is “stronger than you and me” (28-29). Does the film as a whole support one position more than the other?
14. are Bess’ imaginative powers a blessing to her, a curse, or both? Is it even possible to distinguish between what is a product of her imagination, and what is real?
15. does the film provide any incontrovertible evidence that Bess does indeed have an "abnormal" brain? Which of the characters maintain that Bess is disabled, and is this position validated?
16. would it be more accurate to categorize Bess as innocent or naïve than to label her cognitively disabled?
17. does Bess evince the emotional maturity expected of a woman her age? To what degree is she emotionally sensitive to others’ feelings, or emotionally transparent about her own? Is her emotional life healthy and productive?
18. does Lars Von Trier suggest that Bess’ private conversations w/ God are merely evidence that she has eternalized strict edicts from the elders and family, and is now (unconsciously) ventriloquizing God’s voice to herself to help regulate her own behavior and desires? Is there any indication that she is actually communicating w/ a supreme God who responds to her prayers?
19. Bess becomes convinced of a clear and positive correlation between her sexual behavior and Jan’s health. Is she correct?
20. when Bess says, “I’ve always been stupid . . . but I’m good at this” (1:50-55), to what is she referring?
21. is Bess as malleable as Dodo claims (28-29)?
22. can you identify any moments/scenes where Bess appears to have more social acumen, insight, or wisdom than is consistent with her apparent mental difference?
23. the audience isn’t privy to the conditions under which Jan and Bess meet. Does the film provide an explanation for why they might have fallen in love with each other?
24. are Bess and Jan equally devoted to one another?
25. what reason does Bess give for why she’s a virgin on her wedding day?
26. do Bess and Jan appear to take equal pleasure in their sexual experiences together? What of the significance of sex in each of their lives—do they both assign it the same value?
27. what does Jan mean when he says Bess needs to “get on with life” (1:16-18)?
28. what happens during Bess’ first visit to the big boat out in the bay that so scares her?
29. what has Bess’ experience with medical professionals been like in the past? (Look for scattered clues and passing references throughout the film.)
30. in what ways does Dr. Richardson’s approach to Beth differ from that of the other medical professionals depicted in the film?
31. why does Bess faint in the stairwell at the hospital (1:19-22)?
32. Dodo McNeill obviously loves Bess, her sister-in-law, deeply. Does this love translate into wisdom? Does she appear to know what is best for Bess throughout the film?
33. is Dodo’s estimation of Bess’ emotional, spiritual, and intellectual capacities more accurate than any other character’s?
34. what does Jan value about Bess, beyond her success as a lover?
35. why do Jan and Bess not see eye to eye about his life’s significance, following his accident?
36. is Jan willing to lie to Bess?
37. is Terry a faithful friend to Jan in the wake of Jan’s accident on the rig?
38. in 1987, Lars von Trier told interviewers Marie Berthelius and Roger Narbonne, “One of the main rules of my upbringing was that there is no such thing as good or evil—they don’t exist. But they do exist. Not necessarily in the things I do, but they are important. There was also a lack of mythology in my childhood, which I’m trying to make up for” (Lumholdt 54). Which do you think a more appropriate description of the attitude towards Good and Evil adopted by the film Breaking the Waves? Is the tension between the two forces treated as myth or reality?
Wheat Ear (1947)
Dr. Paul Marchbanks