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Literature & Theology, Vol. 17. No.

1, March 2003


Alyda Faber
Abstract Important essays by Stephen Heath, Kyle Keefer, Tod Linafelt, and Irena Makarushka on Lars von Triers Breaking the Waves (1996) contend that the films characterisation of Bess represents her sexuality as a transgressive force for goodness. Catherine MacKinnon and Julia Kristeva, however, challenge the notion of the emanicipatory powers of transgressive sexuality: they theorise how assignments of perverse sexualities constitute patriarchal hierarchies and orders. From this critical perspective, I argue that von Trier represents Besss goodness as masochistic debility, a dubious construction that valorises male domination and invests sexual violence with redemptive meaning.

The imagination of goodness motivates Lars von Triers 1996 film, Breaking the Waves, the first of his Golden Heart trilogy: I prefer to work with unassailable ideas. And I wanted to do a film about goodness.1 Since then, he has completed his trilogy with The Idiots (1998), and Dancer in the Dark (2000). A lively critical conversation has emerged around Breaking the Waves in essays by Stephen Heath, Kyle Keefer, Tod Linafelt, Irena Makarushka, and others, which debates how goodness is represented in the film, specifically in its characterisation of Bess. In this essay, I join this conversation, developing Gavin Smiths observations that von Triers trilogy answers a deep-seated cultural yearning for simple and palpably moral narratives communicated through a measure of misogyny in the films idealised yet masochistic conception of femininity.2 I argue that von Triers characterisation of Bess reiterates a common image of the female saint as martyr, constructing her power as debilitating masochism. If Breaking the Waves is a simple moral tale, it originates in a Danish childrens story, Golden Heart, a story about the role of a martyr in its most extreme form.3 A little girl goes into the woods with a few things in her pockets and
Literature & Theology 17/1 # Oxford University Press 2003; all rights reserved.



pieces of bread. On her travels, she gives away all she has to the destitute people she meets, and at the end of the story, naked and bereft, Golden Heart says, Ill be fine anyway. North Americans may be more familiar with another childrens book that presents goodness as female self-sacrifice. Shel Silversteins The Giving Tree is a story about a tree and a boy. The tree gives up all she has and isher apples, branches, and trunkto please the boys changing desires as a child and later as a man. Giving makes the tree happy, and the boy seems pleased (for short periods) with taking. Reduced to a stump, the tree has nothing left to give when the boy, now an old man, returns to her. The old man wants nothing but a place to rest. And the tree raises herself as much as she can, happy to give again.4 In Breaking the Waves, von Triers narrative of feminine self-sacrifice tells the story of Bess (Emily Watson), a fey member of a strict Calvinist community on the northwest coast of Scotland. She marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil-rig worker who initiates her to the joys of marital love. When he is paralysed in an accident on the rig, Bess holds herself responsible, because she has asked God to bring him back to her. This leads to her attempt to save him, obeying his request to go out and find other lovers and to tell him about it. Her sister-in-law Dodo (Karen Cartlidge) and Jans physician, Dr Richardson (Adrian Rawlins) both attempt to arrest her uncompromising insistence on prostituting herself to save Jan, but she dies after a brutal sexual attack by two sailors. Jan was not expected to walk again, but he rises from his bed after Besss sacrifice. Breaking the Waves is shot with a hand held camera, creating almost constant motion accentuated by abrupt, elliptical transitions in the action. Within these ruptures, the film is shot in real time, the story divided into seven chapters and an epilogue. The chapter divisions are marked by panoramic stills (where slight movement can be detected) of vivid colour and beauty contrasted with the grainy resolution and drab colours of the rest of the film. Each still is accompanied by 1970s pop songs, including Leonard Cohens Suzanne, Jethro Tulls Cross-eyed Mary, and Deep Purples Child in Time.

A number of important essays on Breaking the Waves develop readings of Bess as an embodiment of subversive sexuality. Stephen Heath argues in God, Faith, and Film: Breaking the Waves that Bess incarnates an Absolute imperative of divine love inexplicably and necessarily practised as (sexual) sacrifice. While the film supports a naturalistic reading of Besss actions, describing her in medical terms as psychotic, the film also suggests a supernaturalistic interpretation of Bess as possessing a gift of unerring faith. For Heath, Bess is a fleshpoint of ultimate religious value in the film, devoted to amor omnie (love is all). Her incarnation of divine love is, in its extremes, incommensurable with human



loves and ultimately with human life: the love of God is irrational, anarchic beyond norms, made real by Christs passion and expressed in sacrifice, martyrdom, self-abandonment, goodness in the extreme it is.5 Besss body marks the place of an impossible love, which like the body of Christ makes visible the absolute demand love makes and the proof of its force.6 According to Heath, Bess is a radical saint who transforms the law of her communityits love of the Word of Godinto fleshly human love: Sexthis gift of love with Janbreaks the church conventions, overspills its Word. Bess becomes differently literate, literate in desire, overstepping the law of the Elders, flinging herself out of its terms and their protection.7 Besss sexual desire transgresses the law of her church: she transposes a singular devotion to God into her desire for Jan. Heath interprets this incarnation of a love that risks itself as a slender trace of the absolute, communicated in Besss sexual experiences of ardent joy and aversive horror, and finally in her death. The final shot of the bells ringing high over the ocean and the oil rig, Heath contends, is the only warrant possible for Besss martyrdom: God looks back in a reverse shot that takes his forbidden place of an absolute completion of meaning.8 Woman is the brink of the absolute in this film, yet as such, Breaking the Waves simultaneously canonises and excludes her.9 Heaths concluding words hint at a problemBess is a symbol of the absolute in this film, a catalyst of transformation, yet she is nothing in the films final redemptive moment. In their essay, The End of Desire: Theologies of Eros in the Song of Songs and Breaking the Waves, Kyle Keefer and Tod Linafelt argue that Bess embodies an uncanny Eros that binds together irreconcilable opposites created by patriarchal social orders: human/divine, flesh/spirit, life/death. They interpret the meaning of eros according to Georges Batailles theory in Erotism: Death and Sensuality. For Bataille, eros has radical personal and social (religious) dimensions. Analogous to sacrifice for Bataille, eros ruptures our necessary discontinuity (as separate bodies and conscious minds) so that we experience a temporary continuity (dissolution into unknowing, all barriers broken). Through erotic play, or in witnessing the violence of sacrifice, we recover briefly a lost intimacy with non-human nature that dispels subject/object distinctions, creating a vivifying affective proximity to death in life. These ventures place us and our social ordersdependent upon discontinuity for their existenceat risk. As Keefer and Linafelt explain: Sacrifice, like Eros, is about excessthat which exceeds boundaries, systems, societies, individual bodies.10 As liminal Eros, Bess defies the boundaries of the patriarchal social worlds she moves through: her Calvinist community, the medical establishment, the world of Jan and his fellow oil-rig workers. Keefer and Linafelt argue that Besss embodiment of an erotic force exceeds, and thus condemns, the homosocial realm[s] in which male subjectivity is imagined as paramount and



autonomous.11 Her carnality expresses the erotic impulse toward bordercrossing and the mixing of realms12 and spills over the authoritarian patriarchal structures and relationships of which she is a part. And since violation of boundaries is inherent to sexuality,13 the violence leading to Besss death, while not condoned by Keefer and Linafelt as sacrifice, takes Eros to its extreme telos, or endpoint. Bess manifests the excesses of Eros in her living and her dying, commingling _ bodily desire and spiritual desire,14 her own carnal witness to the threat and promise of continuous being, her own grace-filled power. Keefer and Linafelt observe, accurately I think, that the films ethos is Bataillian, since it reconfigures the sacred to include not only goodness but also violence, transgression, fleshly ecstasy, bodily disintegration, cruelty. They fail to observe, however, another important similarity: von Trier, like Bataille, leaves gender differences as though they cannot be undone. Keefer and Linafelt say with Bataille that eros is like sacrifice, but they neglect to mention the terrible misogyny of his analogy: a male sacrificer opens the body of a female victim. Witnessing a sacrifice or having violent sex with a woman brings man to a vertiginous brink of the absolute: the vast universe and death is embodied in her. She saves him through her embodiment of that which cannot be hemmed in with words, which lacerates and vivifies him. He watches from a slight distance, possessor of a fragile net of words and images, and his own separate (masculine) self. Her gift is her dispossession of these. Later I discuss Julia Kristevas analysis of Batailles term abjection, which she argues is rhetorically constructed as feminine. In Transgressing Goodness in Breaking the Waves, Irena S.M. Makarushka reads Breaking the Waves according to Louise Kaplans feminist theory as elaborated in her book Female Perversions. Kaplan argues that compliance with feminine stereotypes of submission, purity, obedience, and virginity represents a perverse and self-destructive bondage for women. A womans full expression of her sexual, emotional, intellectual and social powers entail who knows what risks and who knows what truly revolutionary alteration to the social conditions that demean and constrain her.15 Applying this feminist theory to von Triers characterisation of Bess, Makarushka argues that Bess exercises choice in a narrow fissure between compliance with or ostracism by the terms of patriarchal law. In a community that refuses women the right to speak or interpret scripture, she speaks out against the churchs unconditional love for the Word, and lives out an unconditional love for another human being: Besss obsession with being good is, in and of itself, a transgressive act that reflects multiplicity and excess.16 She delights in sensual pleasures of music, film, and sex, while the Elders enforce obedience to an impassive God. For Makarushka, the religious community does not censure Besss prostitution, but rather her transgressive joy in sexual intimacy with Jan.17



Makarushka identifies two contrasting visions of good in the film: If the good is a static moral category that assumes compliance, goodness is dynamic, transgressing, and therefore, dangerous.18 She argues that von Trier is critical of the Elders interpretation of good, and proposes a transgressing goodness in his characterisation of Bess. In Makarushkas view, Bess embodies the true nature of religion that von Trier associates with faith, passion and goodness.19 Her expression of faith does not destroy the enduring ethos of her community, but she disturbs this ethos by making a choice to be good on her own terms.20 Besss human (rather than god-centred) religion is communicated in her unerring love for another human being, a passion full of risks, vulnerability, and dynamism. Bess seeks goodness in fragile human relations, a this-worldly precarious salvation of another human being. She claims for herself the power to save another human being. All of this contrasts to the religion of her fathers, particularly in its sexual passion: von Trier eroticizes [Besss] religious experiences as he sacramentalizes her sexual experiences.21 According to Makarushka, von Trier uses motifs of music, sex and bells to create an image of religion as an aesthetic practice that excludes any moralising distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong. While Makarushka acknowledges the power of Besss sexual agency as transgressive of patriarchal constraints and conventional good, she suspects von Trier of his own patriarchal perversions in his representation of her. von Trier seems to be subverting a traditional role of a womans self-sacrifice for a man by giving it a higher, spiritual calling, yet he could be interpreted as reinforcing this idea. Most disturbing to Makarushka is the possibility that von Trier expects viewers to accept the idea that a woman can give up her body for the salvation of a man. Jans salvation is inscribed, or perhaps incised, on Besss body by the man who rapes and kills her.22 This resonant confrontation with the sexual violence of the film does not, however, lead Makarushka to question her thesis that Bess embodies a transgressing goodness. Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, and Makarushka give different readings of the characterisation of Bess, yet they all represent Besss sexuality as a subversive force for goodness. Besss desire (for Makarushka her agency through her sensuality) embodies a dimension of existence that overflows patriarchal orders and categorical distinctions between good and evil. For these authors, Bess communicates in her sexual being a refusal to limit religious expression to what is conventionally assumed to be good or fitting, extending her devotion to Jan into zones of sexuality deemed perverse or degraded by patriarchal sexual standards, and interpreted here as an excessive desire that spills over all that would contain or limit it. The film commends Besss religious devotion to the viewer as a practice of excessive desire that transcends institutional and moral codes. It seems to me that this reading of Breaking the Waves identifies what makes audiences resonate to von Triers film.



Similarly, these critics also commend the way that Bess transposes religious devotion from spirit to flesh. While her community worships God as eternal spirit and absolute word, Besss faith risks itself in contested arenas of human vulnerability and desire. Like Georges Bataille (a comparison developed by Keefer and Linafelt), von Trier represents the sacred through Besss carnality, extending through and beyond the borders of her body in eddies and currents of sexual desire, physical violence, bodily disintegration, and death. Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, and Makarushka appreciate that Bess exercises a fleshly goodness despite her implication in patriarchal practices that restrain, wound, and finally murder her. Makarushkas essay is particularly clear about the ambiguities of Besss actions, and that patriarchal orders terribly wound and break her body and mind. Yet even as these authors attend to the particular ways that Besss sexual desire is constrained by patriarchal culture, they tend to hypostatise sexuality as a transgressive force for goodness. Each author essentialises sexuality as moving beyond social contingencies and realities of oppression to an unconditioned value of human love, thereby accepting uncritically the films representation of sexuality as the measure of emancipation. Furthermore, while these critics argue that sexuality possesses a transgressive religious value beyond good and evil, they seem to essentialise, as goodness, multiplicity, fragility, risk, passion, and even moral undecidability. In this way, they displace the Elders static moral good with absolutist references to values they cherish. Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, and Makarushka offer sophisticated and intelligent readings of Breaking the Waves, which suggest the kind of spectator the film encourages one to become. I read the film against the grain, however, offering what Margaret Miles calls a disobedient reading.23 That is, unlike these authors, I question why sexuality (virginity, married sexual pleasure, prostitution) is the defining aspect of Besss humanness and of goodness in the film. Sexuality remains largely undefined in the essays on Breaking the Waves as an elusive domain of possible (if not actual) freedoms. This may be asking too much of sex, expecting it to encompass the entire content of the communal good.24 I also interrogate how sexuality functions within patriarchal orders, including those forms of sexuality labelled excessive or perverse. These omissions, it seems to me, allow Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, and Makarushka to accept the films identification of goodness with a womans masochistic self-annihilation.

In order to develop my point about sexuality as a contingent social practice concerning power, and to consider what difference it makes reading Breaking the Waves through a social theory of sexuality, I consider Catharine A. MacKinnons feminist theory of sexuality and Julia Kristevas theory of abjection. Unlike Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, and Makarushka, both MacKinnon



and Kristeva understand transgressive sexuality as a practice that constitutes hierarchy within patriarchal orders, rather than as a thrilling liberation outside or beyond these constraints. With reference to MacKinnons and Kristevas theories, I argue that the characterisation of Bess in Breaking the Waves represents her transgressing goodness in terms that I find both conventional and unacceptable: the implantation of feminine sexuality as masochism, a construction which legitimates male dominance through its phallic idealisation of Woman (Kristeva). Furthermore, the representation of Bess according to a dominant interpretation of the crucifixion invests her masochism, and the violence she suffers, with a redemptive religious meaning. In her book, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, MacKinnon develops a gendered theory of social power based in her criticism of a widely assumed essentialist model of sexuality associated with Freud. According to this essentialist understanding, sex is an indefinable good. Sexuality is indeterminate, prepolitical, natural, heterosexual, infinitely variable, and either too individual or too universal to require an explanation in concrete, interpersonal terms. Social institutions and prohibitions necessarily repress and reform this ungovernable natural force; thus, it follows that any transgressive sexual practice liberates the individual from social constraints. And because sexuality is assumed to be essentially good, and only exceptionally violent or destructive, sexual violence appears uncommon or outside the ordinary. MacKinnons feminist theory defines sexuality in terms of actual sexual practices and power relations: Sexuality is not confined to that which is done as pleasure in bed or as an ostensible reproductive act; it does not refer exclusively to genital contact or arousal or sensation, or narrowly to sex-desire or libido or eros. Sexuality is conceived as a far broader social phenomenon, as nothing less than the dynamic of sex as social hierarchy, its pleasure the experience of power in its gendered form.25 MacKinnons development of Marxist analysis into gender analysis means understanding sexuality as not what we would ideally like it to be as individuals, but the material practices and embodiments of sexuality in particular social and political relations. As she wryly remarks, in patriarchal society man is womans material conditions. That is, in a patriarchal society, male power shapes what sexuality is. MacKinnon argues that pornography is the clearest example of how patriarchal sexual practices create the meaning of gender so that gender inequality becomes both sexual and socially real.26 Pornography embodies a sadomasochistic model of sensuous and exciting relations of male power and female powerlessness. The male subject uses women as sexual objects, eroticising the sexual violation, possession, and abuse of women. Through the concrete sexual practice of pornography: Love of violation, variously termed masochism and consent, comes to define female sexuality, legitimating [a sexist] political system by concealing the force on which it is based.27 This sexual economy divides



power by gender into feminine giving and masculine taking, into male subject and female object, an economy without the limits and resistances of relations between subjects, with the result that death is the ultimate sexual act, the ultimate making of a person into a thing.28 Parodies and reversals and transgressions deepen these categorical distinctions of gender relations because they are funded by these distinctions. Furthermore, naturalising feminine sexuality as masochistic (as many philosophers and psychologists have done)29 obscures the way gender functions as a political system that apportions power. For MacKinnon therefore, pornographic representations are concrete patriarchal practices, not an intoxicating fantasy outside convention. Acts of sexual violence (rape, incest, demeaning images of women, sexual harassment) are not, in MacKinnons view, perversions of good sex, but rather a vital distressing fact of what sex is in North American culture. MacKinnons feminist model of sexuality represents a complex political determinism in which womans victimisation within patriarchy does not mean inert passivity, but rather her persistent need to negotiate and resist (and most of all become conscious of ) a system of male domination that shapes womans sexuality as a practice and embodiment of her social disempowerment. Julia Kristevas theory of abjection in Powers of Horror further exposes the violence of social practices that construct womens sexuality as masochistic. Kristeva defines abjection, following Bataille, as the remainder of ordered social systems created by exclusions and hierarchies; in psychoanalytic terms, the outside of ones own and clean self .30 She refers to Mary Douglass anthropological study of primitive religions to explain how formal systems function by creating exaggerated differences between their own order and an excluded disorder. The latter becomes invested with powers like those Freud associates with taboo: sacred, consecrated; _ and uncanny, dangerous, forbidden and unclean.31 Jewish, Christian, and primitive religions develop dualistic systems to contain what they exclude, within codes of purity-impurity, lawtransgression, and spirit-flesh. The inside or ordered practices of rituals marginalise abjectiondefined as excesses of transgression, pain, debility, and deathto the outside perimeter of its permeable borders. Systematised as the opposite of order, the aversive experience of abjection (ambiguity, excess, perversion) actually constitutes the meaning and existence of rational orders. In other words, there is no outside to social orders. Kristeva observes that social disparities in power between men and women are amplified and perpetuated by exaggerating the differences between rational social order and abjection as, respectively, male and female. In this way, womens social inferiority is expressed as her embodiment of the undomesticated outside of culture. Kristeva examines the rhetorical creation of abjection as feminine in a reading of Louis-Ferdinand Celines work, referring to this creation as a phallic ideal 32 isation of Woman. The authorial (masculine) subject is just slightly removed



from identification with femininity objectified as an image of suffering and horror that meshes pleasure^pain. In Celines writings, woman spirals between veneration and degradation; associated on the one hand with beauty, she is the object of the authors attention, and on the other, she embodies illness, sacrifice, and masochism. I find Kristevas elaboration of Celines phallic idealisation of Woman suggestive for von Triers characterisation of Bess. For example, Celine idealises the girl-childs form, which has the effect of deferring sexuality while making it appear pervasive. His writing presents the feminine as separated from reason and language. His female characters are creatures of nature or saints: mad, hysterical, manipulable, and unbounded. Women appear in his fiction as prostitutes or nymphomaniacs, possessing a wild, obscene, and threatening femininity.33 Feminine power takes the form of victimisation and oppression, giving her power an image of downfall, abject poverty and senseless masochism.34 Kristeva argues that such degraded feminine desire is an integral part of a social structure that creates male power as autonomous speaking (writing) subject, slightly detached from the threatening and inspiring spectacle of unbounded femininity.


Sexuality is the centrefold of Besss characterisation in Breaking the Waves. As we have seen, both MacKinnon and Kristeva contend that patriarchal sexual violence is rooted in a practice of finding the deep texture of womans being, actions, and loves in her embodiment of abject carnality. As a sexual thing, she communicates to the male subject, a radical otherness of blurred pleasurepain, violence, and death. MacKinnon and Kristeva urge us not to forget the power dynamics of such representations, how gender hierarchy reconstitutes itself here. Breaking the Waves tells the story of Besss virginity, her sexual pleasure as a wife, her work as a prostitute, and her death through sexual torture. The film creates an image of Bess as the template of bittersweet sexuality that heals and wounds deeplyfrom her childlike sexless sweetness in the opening scenes to her disillusioned suffering in the hospital after she has been tortured and raped. In the hotel bathroom during the wedding reception, Bess tells Jan, love me now.35 The cameras close scrutiny of her reaction to the sheer physicality of sex reveals her pain and uncertainty. The red wallpaper in the bathroom, the setting of her defloration, suggests a certain continuity with the more intense violation that Bess consents to later while working as a prostitute. Yet Bess also receives her newly experienced sexuality with ardent joy, saying thank you to God while having sex with Jan on their wedding night. In her prayers in the church she says, I thank you for the greatest gift of allthe gift of love.



The screenplay suggests a seamless continuation of the pleasurepain ambiguity of sex when Bess prostitutes herself. Her first intercourse with a customer combines violence with unexpected pleasure:
The man fucks Bess violently _ [Bess] slips in and out of total surrender. She will not let herself go _ Suddenly Besss body is gripped in the throes of an incredibly violent orgasm. Bess screams.36

This sexual encounter, on scrubland by a shed near the ocean, is broken up by scenes of attempts to revive Jan in the operating theatre, his resuscitation occurring at the same moment as her orgasm. In the film, this sexual encounter is represented as physically nauseating and violating to Bess. Instead of orgasm, she takes pleasure in the consolation that her degradation37 and pain has a purpose: saving Jan. This scene parallels a scene early in the film when Bess has her first orgasm with Jan inside a shed near the ocean. Before going into the shed, Jan and Bess stand near the ocean together in cruciform position, the wind tearing their clothes, the water spraying them, again deeply associating violence and sexual pleasure. The theme of blurred pleasurepain is continued in von Triers merging of images of sanctification through self-sacrifice (following the model of Christ) with Besss prostitution. When Jan and Bess are married, the minister tells the congregation to follow the example of Christs sacrifice: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it _ We love Christ and should give ourselves. The minister says that Bess has already been doing this in her regular cleaning duties in the church. Later, she turns from the sacrifice of domestic work to that of prostitution, an activity the film constructs as an extravagant, sacred expenditure of all her physical resources and being.38 Even before Bess prostitutes herself, the viewer is frequently reminded of her capacity for boundless giving. At the wedding reception, Dodo describes Bess as having the biggest heart of anyone Ive met, her generosity knows no bounds, and she would give anything to anyone. In the hospital, Dodo reminds Jan that Bess would do anything for you. She doesnt care about herself. Shed do anything to put a smile on your face. Besss self-abnegating consent to prostitution is implied by the almost fetishised value attributed to her virginity. The spectator is given at least three reminders of her virginity: she is unaware of the physical acts of sex; she washes blood from her wedding dress after Jan makes love to her; and, on their wedding night, Jan asks Bess, How did you stand it? How did you keep away from the boys? to which she answers, I waited for you. When Jan asks her to find other lovers, she resists because of her sexual loyalty to him: But I love you. He reconfigures her love for him to include unfaithfulness to him as a proof of her love, a carnal sign of love [as] a mighty power that will save his life. Besss consent to prostitution violates both her



desire (to remain faithful to Jan), and her body. The film composes these violations as a communication of sacred excessa fascinating and terrible abjectionin and through her feminine attitude of giving without limits. Furthermore, the reiteration of images of the ocean with Bess implies that her sexual powers of giving are as natural and irresistible as the ocean, vast, deep, and unfathomable. The seashore is the place of Besss first intense sexual pleasure, and her sexual torture also takes place there. The sea is both her grave and scene of redemption, where the bell signalling her arrival to the sadistic sailors on the black ship is transformed into church bells ringing out over the waters in the final scene of the film. Heath persuasively associates the breaking the waves of the films title with popular descriptions of female orgasm. It seems to me that this metaphor (which has strong visual resonances in the film) naturalises womans orgasm as her masochistic powers of endless giving. As we have seen by way of MacKinnons theory of sexuality, von Triers creation of an organic sacred, embodied as abject feminine masochism, obscures its own patriarchal power dynamics. von Triers spectacle of Besss natural, unbounded eros has further echoes in descriptions of her as stupid, not right in the head, and psychotic, manifest in her extreme emotionality. When Jan arrives late for the wedding, Bess beats him with her fists, the noise of the helicopter adding to the hysteria of the scene. When he has to leave for work on the oil rig, Bess screams in protest, attempting to open the door of the helicopter before it leaves, and is finally sedated by Dodo to quiet her animal-like moaning. In scene after scene, Bess howls in anguish and rage because Jan has abandoned her to work on the oil rig. No other person in the film exhibits a similar animal intensity of emotions. For many critics, the ardour of Besss unconditional devotion to Jan embodies an excessive desire that exceeds patriarchal impositions. Yet MacKinnons and Kristevas theories demonstrate that patriarchy has no transgressive outside in practice or in fantasy, but that these transgressions (or abjected exclusions) fortify male social dominance as an exclusive rational power. von Trier creates the image of Bess as sexual martyr through a peculiar valorisation of feminine abjection as madness, formlessness, malleability, hysteria. This common reiteration of femininity as weakness, even if it is a higher, spiritual calling (Makarushka), recreates male power over against feminine power as fascinating debility. In particular, Besss transposition of love for the Word into love for the flesh suggests to many film critics that she breaks out of the former law. Kristeva clarifies how transgressions embody the unwanted, abject undersides of any social order. Besss Calvinist community understands perfection as unconditional love for the Word that is written, but she tells the Elders, in a meeting to discuss her excommunication, that you cannot love a Word, but you can love another human being, thats perfection. Bess changes the object



of her devotion from Word to flesh, but the terms of her devotion, and its funding of male power, does not change at all. This kind of reversal only deepens the categorical distinctions upon which it is based. To see the gender politics of the film, it is important to see the religious and political stakes not as vested in Bess alone, as do the aforementioned critics, but in the relationship she has with Jan, which parallels her relationship with God. As MacKinnon apprises us, we are meant to ignore the sadism of a love that demands compliance, eroticises protest, and punishes disobedience: the invisible and legitimated patriarchal system, as confusing as Jans sexual powers and God. Bess is devoted to Jan as she is devoted to God. Her first and last words in the film are Jans name. The aerial view above the action of the film, implied as the Gods-eye-view, is inhabited by Jan in one shot as he returns via helicopter to the oil rig after his marriage to Bess. The phone calls between Bess and Jan are an erotic counterpart to her prayers with God; in both relationships Bess is the ardent child-woman in relation to a male figure possessed of greater power and knowledge. The most disturbing resemblance between Jan and the Calvinist God of the film is Jans ability to command Besss obedience (in spite of her repeated protests), to sacrifice herself for him, and to endure sexual brutality and humiliation for his sake. Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, and Makarushka interpret Besss actions as transgressive of the Elders phallic law of ascetic devotion to an all-powerful Father God, giver of every good and perfect gift, who punitively taketh away when his children disobey him. I contend that rather than transgressing phallic law, Jans relationship with Bess sexualises it. Jan is the giver of the perfect gift of sexual love, and later becomes uncompromising in his demand (from his hospital bed) that Bess have sex with other men and tell him about it. The source of these demands receives a number of explanations in the film: Jan is heavily medicated and does not know what he is doing; he is perverted; he desires Besss well-being. We are familiar with diverse explanations offered by court judges to excuse mens sexual abuse of women. The important detail is this: Jan commands, and Bess obeys. A number of voices demand this obedience: Bess as God (or the ethos of the community) tells herself to prove her love for Jan, and asks her who she is trying to save, herself or Jan; the minister tells her that the Lord looks with anger upon those who fail him; and Dodo says, you should try to listen to him for once. Youre the only one who can give him the will to live. Jan is the unmoved mover; the determining power of male eroticism is so strong that he can be immobile and still regulate Besss actions. Female malleability and compliance is phallic law. Bess embodies her Calvinist communitys law of obedience to a pitiless Father God who demands the sacrificial death of his son, but her community rejects the sexual nature of her radical obedience to Jan as to God. Besss actions and powers, however diversely understood in the film (as a result of sickness,



her limited choices in a patriarchal society, her talent of faith) are funnelled into a simple moral tale of womans unbounded generosity. With all its ambiguities, the films narrative unambiguously proposes that a woman can give up her body for the salvation of a man (Makarushka). Bess is von Triers Giving Tree. This is phallic law: that a womans powers are manifest in her bodily disintegration, in volcanic emotion, in degradation, in death. Rather than claiming Bess as a figure of nameless good, excessive Eros, or transgressing goodness, Bess is, in my view, a phallic idealisation of Woman, which has the domestic political effect of valorising male dominance. This is a conventional story of patriarchal society that utilises images of transgressing goodness to revalorise an image of male power. von Trier creates pornographic images of a sadistic God in relation to Besss masochistic humanness. While some reviewers and film critics responding to Breaking the Waves suggest a tentative analogy between Bess and Christ, James Wall, the editor of the Christian Century, makes this comparison boldly in an initial review of the film, undeterred by the sexual violence of this particular incarnation. He accepts without question Besss sacrifice through her own sexual violation as a credible expression of a transgressive, Christ-like goodness:
Besss actions are not signs of corruption; they are signs of steadfast faith. They entail not a defilement of goodness but an embodiment of goodness. This goodness seems absurd to others. But then the world saw Christ and knew him not.39

The self-humiliation of her actions is appreciated by Wall as a commendable obedience to absolute divine commands that shatter human expectations and morality. Bess embodies absolute love, pure innocence and the paradoxical combination of joy and terror in following Gods command.40 This is the kind of depoliticised, essentialising interpretation of Bess as a Christ figure that Makarushka is justifiably nervous about, and which I have no intention of replicating. Associations between Bess and the figure of Christ are intimated with visual and narrative resonances to a classic filmic imitation of the life of Christ, Carl Theodor Dreyers The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).41 Bess, like Joan (Renee Falconetti), is filmed in many close up shots of her face, creating religious value for the intimate, intense scrutiny of her expression and emotion; Bess is also interrogated by a council of religious leaders, who question her intended marriage in the opening sequence, unwittingly sentence her to death through excommunication, decide the terms of her burial, and consign her to hell while lowering her casket into the ground. In von Triers film, Christs life becomes sexualised in Bess, her humiliation and death the pivot upon which the analogy moves.42 Jesus words at the Last Supper, this is my body, broken



for you, is reiterated in Besss offer of her body to Dr Richardson, who refuses, and to her customers, in an escalation of violence against her. As she is ferried to the black ship one last time, she is transfigured by the luminous silvery waters, a camera close-up of her hair blowing in strands around her darkened eyes and pale skin, suggesting iconography of the crucifixion. Three ships on the horizon evoke the crosses on Golgotha. In the hospital emergency hours later, Bess is cut and bruised, her face disfigured, like the most graphic representations of Jesus crucifixion, speaking her last words to her mother, calling out Jans name, in desperation at having failed him, forsaken by him. Dodos anguished lament, breaking through her habitual restraint, is a brilliant wordless analogy of the centurions confession, Truly this man was Gods son (Mk. 15:39). Besss sacrifice in obedience to the will of Jan-God portrays a sexualised version of the most dominant interpretation of Jesus crucifixion in the Christian tradition. In Jesus: Miriams Child, Sophias Prophet, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza argues that any interpretation that depoliticises and spiritualises Jesus execution contributes to victimisation of the powerless.43 Turning the cross into a symbol of self-sacrifice, radical obedience and self-giving suffering, this interpretation confers intrinsic (redemptive) religious value upon suffering and death. Such an understanding of Jesus death, according to Schussler Fiorenza, perpetuates the victimisation of the socially disempowered because it encourages these believers to accept, rather than to resist and transform, their suffering. The readings of Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, and Makarushka make a similar spiritualising move by attributing an essentialist meaning to Besss sexuality as transgressing goodness, an interpretation which invests with religious value the sexual violence she suffers. The film creates the truth of Besss witness to unconditional love through reiterated images of her suffering, debility, and sexual excess. Early reviews of the film have been attentive to its graphic violence in this respect. Lizzie Franck observes that the close scrutiny of Besss disintegration is at times so painfully raw and shocking that sometimes one doesnt want to look anymore.44 David Ansen says that [Watsons] performance leaves you shaken, off balance, haunted. Days later, your rational mind may question the films wild leaps of faith. Watching it, you believe.45 von Trier composes his film aesthetic of violence by provoking a guilty collusion between film and viewer: the spectator inhabits the horror and suffering communicated through the spectacle of Besss lacerated body, her cries of pain and terror, and finally the image of her corpse. This complicity immerses the spectator in a violence so saturating that it shuts down the possibility of criticism. Such empathic investment in Besss pain, as if deprived of our will power, evokes an experience of the sacred through horror and abjection: a something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling.46



My impression of how the films representation of violence works is clarified in a scene near the end of the film in the chapter Besss Sacrifice. Dodo, part of a team of medics trying to save Besss life, finally gives up when she is pronounced dead. At this moment, Dodos habitual restraint and scepticism are lacerated by the sight of Besss corpse lying on the stretcher, and she breaks into an anguished lamenting cry. This scene suggests a movement from observing a spectacle to participation in it, a movement created through anguish and horror toward, in this film, a repose of faith. Whatever the spectator may think of the film, Breaking the Waves reverberates in the body of the viewer, creating as truth the image of feminine powers of self-annihilating giving. The spectacle of feminine masochism becomes irresistible in sensations of horror and suffering in the spectator, hence the irresistible truth of feminine abjection within the male rational order, according to Kristeva. In this way, von Triers film composes through Bess a politically dangerous apotheosis of breaking a womans body as an event of encountering the holy.


Breaking the Waves is a brilliant and disturbing work. von Trier creates an unconventional image of the sacred in and through Besss carnality, the tissue and blood of her erotic passions, physical violations, bodily disintegration, and death. The film ascribes religious value to sexual violence through sensations of horror, compelling faith (and thus complicity) in its spectacle of masochistic feminine goodness. Reimagining the sacred as moral undecidability in the space of the decreation of self (Simone Weil) seems like a commendable project. Yet, von Trier absolutises Besss transgressing goodness through conventional patriarchal images of feminine abjection, deployed through images of feminine madness, emotionality, and her natural, oceanic, powers. That is, von Trier idealises feminine masochism. Woman embodies human abjection, debility, and death, and valorises, as its opposite, the rational male subject. The visceral power of cinematic images of abject holiness, and the significance of such representations of the sacred, tempt critics to accept a conventional moral tale about woman as Giving Tree, as a thing that gives infinitely. The film composes a spectacle of Besss excessive goodness as embodied in her ability to produce miracles through the unbounded openness of her body and submission to violation. But it needs to be said that this is not an image of power but of powerlessness, since the violation of women is ignored and delegitimated as violation in male dominant societies. This is not to say that Bess has no power, but only that her power is repetitively channelled into the same patriarchal streams, and hardly anyone seems to protest. Besss death achieves Jans resur-erection.



Through his characterisation of Bess, von Trier creates a sexual economy without limits or resistances, from Besss sexualised expression of Calvinist law in obedience to JanGod to her final unresisting end in death. von Triers images of transgression and his allusions to Christ-like sacrifice suggest that Besss actions express an uncommon goodness: a gift that gives a man the power to get up from his sickbed and to walk again. And von Trier is not wrong about this: mans power in patriarchal society gets up from its sickbed and walks in this film, another recreation of male power, reiterating once again the miracle of a cultural acceptance of male power over against female powerlessness, the fragility of which requires its repetition in simple and sensuous moral tales. This is why I insist that Breaking the Waves is not just a mans masochistic fantasy47 but part of a persistent male creation of womens social reality.48

Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 3B5 Canada

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L. von Trier, Naked Miracles, interview by Stig Bjorkman, Sight and Sound 6 (1996) 12. G. Smith, Imitation of Life, Film Comment 26 (September/October 2000) 24. von Trier, Naked Miracles, p. 12. S. Silverstein, The Giving Tree (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). S. Heath, God, Faith, and Film: Breaking the Waves, Literature and Theology 12 (March 1998) 99. Ibid., p. 94. Ibid., pp. 97^8. Ibid., p. 103. Ibid., p. 106. K. Keefer and T. Linafelt, The End of Desire: Theologies of Eros in The Song of Songs and Breaking the Waves in S. Brent Plate and D. Jasper (eds), Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999), p. 59. Ibid., p. 56. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., p. 59. I.S.M. Makarushka, Transgressing Goodness in Breaking the Waves in Imag(in)ing Otherness, p. 72, citing Kaplans Female Perversions, p. 528.

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Ibid., p. 72. Ibid., p. 76. Makarushkas argument depends upon an assumption that patriarchal powers (especially as figured in the Elders) are without sensualities, powers, pleasures, over against which she develops the truth of Besss sensual transgressing goodness. For a discussion of how pleasures and sensations are created in the space of interdiction, see M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. I, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), pp. 36^49. Ibid., p. 72. Ibid., p. 78, emphasis added. Makarushka objects to the Elders absolutist religion, yet she gives a similar ontological priority (essentialising as goodness) the values that she cherishespassion, multiplicity, risk and moral undecidability. Ibid., p. 67. Ibid., p. 68. Ibid., p. 76. M.R. Miles, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). K.M. Sands, Uses and the Thea(o)logian: Sex and Theodicy in Religious Feminism,

ALYDA FABER Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 8 (Spring 1992) 23. C.A. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989), p. xiii. Ibid., p. 140. Ibid., p. 141. Ibid., p. 140. Ibid., p. 283, n. 42. MacKinnon includes: Georges Bataille, an extensive list of philosophers, and psychologists, who describe womens sexual nature as inherently masochistic. J. Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. L.S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1982), p. 65, italics in original. Ibid., p. 59, citing Freud, Totem and Taboo, p. 26. Ibid., p. 163. Ibid., p. 167. Ibid. Breaking the Waves, prod. and dir. L. von Trier, 159 min. (October Films, 1996) videocassette. Dialogue cited from the film in this essay is taken from this soundtrack. L. von Trier, Breaking the Waves (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), p. 98. Besss Calvinist community proscribes prostitution as degrading and sinful, and Besss acceptance of this deepens her humiliation, even as she associates humiliation with Gods favour. She confesses her sin, after jerking off a man on a bus, and replies in Gods voice: Mary Magdalene sinned too, yet she is among my dearly beloved. Georges Bataille describes prostitution as a useless squandering of a womans being, like the profligacy of nature, a sacred extravagant waste that both attracts and repulses us. It seems to me that this image structures von Triers communication of the sanctity of Besss masochism. See G. Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. M. Dalwood (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1986), pp. 129^39, and his The Accursed Share, vol. II, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pp. 140^7.



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J.M. Wall, Paradoxical Goodness, The Christian Century 114 (February 1997) 115. Ibid., 116. The original Danish title is Jeanne dArcs Lidelse og Dod, or The Passion and Death of Joan of Arc. von Trier refers to two filmic models for his characterisation of Bess: Joan in Dreyers film, and Gelsomina in La Strada (Frederico Fellini, 1954). See Emily Watson, interview trans. M.-A. Guerin, Portrait, Cahiers du Cinema 506 (October 1996) 27. It seems to me that an even more obvious model exists in Jean Luc Godards Vivre sa vie which creates a visual analogy between Nana, a prostitute, and Dreyers Joan. This film is divided into chapters and ends with two minutes of lingering attention to Nanas murdered corpse. Jonneke Bekkenkamp observes that filmic motifs associate both Bess and Jan with Christ, but Bess embodies the crucifixion and Jan the resurrection. See her essay Breaking the Waves: Corporality and Religion in a Modern Melodrama in J. Bekkenkamp and M. de Haardt (eds), Begin with the Body: Corporeality, Religion and Gender (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters, 1998), p. 153. E.S. Fiorenza, The Execution of Jesus and the Theology of the Cross, Jesus: Miriams Child, Sophias Prophet (New York: Continuum, 1999), pp. 97^128. See also C.E. Gudorf, Ending the Romaticization of Victims, Victimization: Examining Christian Complicity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992), pp. 54^74. L. Francke, Breaking the Waves, Sight and Sound 6 (1996) 36. D. Ansen, God, Sex and Sacrifice, Newsweek (9 December 1996) 82. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 12. T. Rafferty, Mad Love, New Yorker 72 (18 November 1996) 124 (italics added). Conversations with David K. Heckerl and K. Roberts Skerrett contributed a great deal to the development of the ideas in this essay. I am also grateful for the helpful comments offered by two anonymous readers of Literature & Theology.