The 21st century viewer is expected to be open-minded, critical and very subjective.
They might catch themselves saying, “I love how different this is” or “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” The modern audience is attracted to the alternative and the media drinks it in.
It is typical for directors to push boundaries with their work and for the most part, they have been well received by the audience. Still, I often wonder if the difference we claim to celebrate is all that unconventional.
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is famous for confronting social issues with his films. They do not merely celebrate difference but aggressively provoke societal boundaries while transgressing set moral expectations.
However, difference is often subjective, and there is often a threshold of tolerance for the odd and the alternative in today’s society.
In 1996, Trier released the film Breaking the Waves and it won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival that same year.
The film’s female protagonist, Bess McNeil, is schizophrenic and possesses a childish manner. She is consciously made the odd character from the onset: the individual who sits on the margins of society, as she cannot function within normative expectations.
Bess’ plight is depressing and we are inclined to pity her. Viewers instinctively gloss over her tragic end and view it as an onscreen exaggeration of tragedy (which is present in so many film narratives). However, her rape is not a plot catalyst— it is the leveler for her confusing identity. Even in death, Bess remains the improper woman.
Plot analysis aside, the film is remarkable in multiple ways: it represents society’s hypocritical judgment, uses the smokescreen of a romance to dull its initial chilling impact on the secular audience and guarantees a conscious moral discussion amongst viewers.
The conversation between Jan and Bess, regarding his sexual needs, appears mundane within the walls of a hospital room. Trier eloquently captures the contradictory mindset society possesses when dealing with difference.
The image of unwavering love between the couple is replaced by what viewers will deem as a moral challenge. This discomfort provokes the audience and displays the tension between morality and open-mindedness onscreen.
It gets worse; her fate is ultimately the result of Jan’s seemingly selfless request. Yet, the extra screen time given to Bess’s schizophrenic lapses convinces the audience that she is a prisoner of her mental illness.
While I was able to sit through the scene of Jan’s request (for Bess to take up other lovers and talk about it in the name of love), I was undoubtedly conflicted by the clash between accepting individuality and the moral values I was taught as the film progressed.
In this day and age we claim to accept difference because we want to look like forward thinking individuals, along with the advancing world. Yet, our minds’ progress is stunted by this struggle, which bears no direct resolution.
How can we claim to admire the unconventional when we are so afraid of it?