"I'm far from sharing von Trier's cynicism, but I think there are many reasons for respecting it, most of them generational. People born before 1950 often had good reason to feel hopeful, at least during the late 60s and 70s; those born later -- von Trier was born in 1956-- had less and less reasons to feel that way. A massive backlash against the earlier generation's optimism is still going on, an indication of how potent the optimism was. (...) Within such a context, a passionate desire to create and even respect a character like Bess--however many stylistic and thematic paradoxes this entails--is clearly a heroic aspiration.
Von Trier may be deeply cynical, but he's less so than Terrence Rafferty was when he recentlly wrote in the New Yorker, "If Breaking the Waves becomes a hit, von Trier will have proved that the american audience for foreign films wants today precisely what it wanted in the boom years of the 50s and early 60s: nudity plus theology." A little later he added, "It's tempting to attribute the decline of the European film to the increase, over the years, in the erotic explicitness of American movies." When he says "decline" and "the European film" it can only be in the context of the American marketplace--specificaly the European films selected by American distributors, the tip of the iceberg Rafferty seems happy to accept as a whole. Apparently he believes the only reason films are made in Europe is to satisfy Americans who want to see tits and ass mixed in with their theology, and if these needs can't be met, European filmmakers might as well han over their assignments to "pure" American artists working free of such pressures. (...)
I can't recall much nudity or theology in European movies such as Mon Oncle, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Last Year in Marienbad, Eclipse, Ashes and Diamonds, or [Bergman's] The Magician--to cite only a few of my favorites that did well during those "boom years" (alongside such commercial flops as Pickpocket, Lola and Dreyer's Gertrud). (...)
I can certainly understand Rafferty's anger at the sarcasm and falsity underlying von Trier's approach--since I become angry every time I think of Breaking the Waves "replacing" Ordet (though that's surely a false syllogism). (...)
A less sympathetic reading of this flexibility might be that von Trier is "too cynical to believe even his own cynicism"--as Andrew Sarris once said of Billy Wilder. But I would prefer to regard Breaking the Waves as a search for belief that acknowledges the land mines separating a 70s consciousness from that goal, a search that burrows ever deeper into irony and ambiguity without reaching the sincerity it strives for--but without collapsing into the nihilism that I see all around me in commercial fare. (...)
Is Breaking the Waves a religious film? I doubt that von Trier knows the answer to that question--just as I doubt that Dreyer would have known the answer if he'd been asked the same question about Ordet. A vast universe of thought, feeling, and artistry divides the two films, made over 40 years apart, but this uncertainty is the point at which both of them become interesting."
Jonathan Rosenbaum in "Mixed Emotions" : review of Breaking the Waves, Chicago Reader, Dec. 6, 1996. Also in Essential Cinema (2004), chapter "special problems"
Now I can agree with Rosenbaum's 1996 reasoning. Thank you for correcting what sounded wrong in the 2007 NYT.
Though it seems that anyone making films around Denmark must be compared to Dreyer... I see the connection between Breaking the Waves and Ordet, but Dreyer is not the end all argument to judge a film in particular. Not every cinema has to be about Dreyer, has it? We certainly could look past this aspect to focus on the film itself. What is the connection between Bergman and Lars von Trier?
My unanswered comment at the Chicago Reader's blog [EDIT: Rosenbaum replied on his blog since]:
"Why would Bergman's use of "torture" on his fictional characters be different, in principle, to Dreyer's (or Bresson's)?Could someone answer me?
Jonathan, in your Essential Cinema essay, you seem to be more generous towards Lars Von Trier's cynicism in Breaking the Waves, than you are for the entire oeuvre of Bergman. You reckon there are creative, interesting ways to deal with misantropy.
If the debate is about the content and moral purpose of such sadism, then we shouldn't stigmatize "misanthropy" in itself, and focus on Bergman's hollowness (if that's the case) rather than "sadism" (which is a cliché).
I don't know what you think of these following auteurs, but on the specific case of "misantropic treatment" what degrees separate the "cynicism" of, say, Bresson (Balthazar, Une Femme Douce, L'argent, Le Diable Probablement), Kaurismaki, Herzog, Cassavetes, Elaine May (Mickey and Nicky), Peter Watkins, Alan Clarke, Polanski, Kubrick, Kurosawa (Dodesukaden, The Lower Depths) , Kim Ki-duk...
If you admire any of these, what justifies their harassment of fictional characters that doesn't work with Bergman (and I think he's at least greater than a few on the list)."