Review by Pedro Sena
3 stars out of 4
The only thing that seems to work against this film, is that it has no
positive values, as it were, and therefore, no hope, in many ways, specially
for the character/person, who makes this film go. But if one can, put aside
that value judgement, this film has one performance that is absolutely
excellent, and well deserving of its accolades. Not many people can stand
out so much, anywhere at all.
This is the story of Bess, who marries outside of her family and
village, to an oil derrick worker. She is, very aloof, does crazy things,
and in her spare time has conversations with God, with whom she seems to
have a reasonable rapport.... except that this is mixed to the point that it
makes her feel guilty, and responsible for the chain of events that change
Her marriage seems fine, and as might be customary, she misses her
husband. In one of her prayers/conversations with God, she asks that he come
home. But he comes home injured, and ends up paralyzed. This adds some
strain to their marriage, and jan decided that Bess should have affairs and
then tell him about it, as a way for him to enjoy something while in pain
and paralyzed. Bess is at odds with the whole thing, and starts out with a
lie, which of course, Jan sees through anyway. And in her second attempt,
she decided to give herself away to the first person that crosses her path.
This progresses, as is expected, and Jan is not getting better. he has,
however, met another nurse, who seems to be more helpful. The nurse quickly
sees the predicament that they are both in, and the story changes. Bess
makes another mistake and joins a band of foreign shipmen, whose attitudes
towards women and sex seem to be more sadistic than otherwise, and this
brings about her total demise. The new nurse has called Jan's bluff, and his
healing and desire to live has finally improved, and in the end we catch
Bess getting a burial, at their hands, after the elders had condemned her,
and decided that she could not have a decent burial at all.
Startling as it may be the greatest thing in this film is watching Emily
Watson do her Bess thing all the way through. From the innocent little girl
having her talks to God, to her eventual reckless abandon, in giving herself
away, to prove that she loves her husband, which is something that he has
requested in the first place. In between is a massive acting job, the likes
of which is rarely found.
For the most part, this film is done with a camera in hand, as if it had
Bess' point of view as the most important part of its story. Around her, the
camera moves, and at times it seems to move faster than otherwise, which is
a nice analogy for what is happening around her, and she has a hard time
keeping up with it. In comparison, the rest of the film is slow and boring,
with some rather pointed places... like Jan's hospital room, where the
camera does not move as much, or very little, thus suggesting that he is
boring, if one takes that to be a theme. However, Bess has given herself
away to this man, and she will do what she has to, to feel like she can love
him unconditionally. The down side, of course, asides from a religious
community that relishes in judging people, even if they are from their
families, as outlaws, renegades, and disgraced people.
Lars von Trier, has used the hand style before, although it was never
used in such an incredible abandon with which it is used here in this film.
This enhances Bess' plight, and we can't help but feel sorry for her and her
predicament. And it never slows down, or makes the film less attractive for
what it is trying to do, and accomplish. It is the story of Bess, and the
film ends with Bess, though we know what else has happened.
It's hard not to get caught up in the emotions of the moment in this
film, as the visual style tends to drag you in.... when jan gets hurt, it is
as if we are also getting hurt, or at least a part of the hard work that he
A very good film, though sad, but very strong in the acting department,
specially Emily Watson, who turns in what is considered a career
performance. But the film has its vicious edge at times, specially when
looking at the elders and their attitudes.
Copyright © 1997 Pedro Sena