My article investigates the representation and significance of the suffering female body in three films by Danish male directors operating in a religious framework: Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987) and von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996). In these films the visual level complements the narrative level in order to accentuate the heroines’ physical suffering, often in a manner which is particularly poignant. More specifically, my analysis will point out the ways in which the body is brought into the foreground in each film and valorised against the backdrop of a confrontation between the body as pathos and the word as logos.
Dreyer’s images and close-ups use the potentialities of the body to suggest the spiritual chasm between Joan of Arc and her judges. Moreover, the opposition between Joan and the theologians is also rendered in terms of the opposition between the oral and the written word, from which she is excluded. Hers is the embodied word and the passion; the subjective experience of embodied suffering becomes a test for her truth. With Babette’s Feast we move into a Lutheran pietistic background but the action is still played out in terms of Protestant – Catholic worldviews. Here the suffering of the body is toned down in a symbolic representation. Babette’s feast is actually an act of self-giving, her own body being offered to the others, symbolized by the cailles en sarcophages she prepares for the consumption of the community. Bess in Breaking the Waves challenges directly the theological foundations of the Calvinist faith of the community, opposing their veneration of the word as the letter of the Bible with an existential dedication to the embodied Word and the immediate consequences this has for human relationships. Like Joan, Bess lays bare the mechanics of power which becomes violently inscribed on her body.
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