A religious film to rank with Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. God is far from dead in Lars von Trier’s dank, windswept hell-on-Earth landscape. On the contrary, He is alive and kicking and flaunting a perverse sense of humor, speaking so sternly that He sounds rather like a demon. Wondrous Bess (Emily Watson, resembling an ironic Liv Ullmann) is so full of God that she’s stripped the rest of the world of His presence. She’s swallowed Him up whole, and they have the most incredible conversations in long intruding close-ups. (The grainy, filthy cinematography suggests an otherwise godless world. Even the cliffs seem anguished.)
Bess has been taught to see life on earth as a ruin. Life exists to be fled, not to be clung to. Yet clinging to life is just what she does upon marrying the life-loving foreigner, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), latching on to him gleefully, dangerously. She only ever frees herself from the violence of her affections when communicating with God. Automatically the village becomes distrustful of her and her version of “love.” (The stark, vigilant Calvinist elders seem to have been directly abducted from a Dreyer movie, and von Trier exposes the hilarity of their pretensions without having to force a thing.) When Jan is left physically paralyzed after an accident and can no longer have sex with Bess, he creates a ploy for her to go on living. He demands that she have intercourse with other men. Assuming the role of an unwilling Mary Magdalene, Bess gradually becomes the town’s whore in order to “save her husband,” culminating in her own stoning. (There is, however, no Jesus to stop the mob.) Naturally, she is excommunicated and condemned to hell.
But Bess as presented by von Trier and Watson is no self-sacrificing martyr. She is not Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, purified by the ecstasy of her body and soul’s communion with Christ. Nor is she the witch from Day of Wrath, ravished by an overpowering devotion to the pleasures of life. Bess’ communication with God is rather more pragmatic, more self-serving: God tells her exactly what she wants to hear, feeding her every obsession. As for life, she takes displeasure in a great many things. Her tangible idea of “life” is confined to a single man. It is this “innocence,” this quality of being a little “funny in the head,” that makes her a saint in the eyes of other characters (and part of the audience.) But Bess herself goes through none of the standard religious transcendence. Rather than purity, it is the scope and the single-minded intent of her isolation that render her a mythological character. Her world is closed off to even Jan. Bess’ mind-heaven has real power and we gain entry to it through von Trier’s intuitive use of close-ups (no one since Bergman had extracted more from the human face or shown more interest in it.) And the absurd spark in her eyes is unforgettable, as is her triumph over two thousand years of abstruse theology as she asks the elders, “How can a man love a Word?”
This movie has possibly the worst ending to any great film as church bells ring in heaven, as if von Trier wanted to reassure us that Bess was saved from the fiery pits. But it’s a minor desecration: the movie is a near-masterpiece.
Dir. Lars von Trier / 1996 / Denmark