Navigation – Plan du site
1. Figures in the Lacanian Field
IV/ Post-Symbolic Strategies

The Postfeminist Masquerade and the Cynical Male Gaze: The Disavowal of Sexual Difference in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves



Cet article est un commentaire de l’appropriation lacanienne de Breaking the Waves par Slavoj Zizek, Frances Restuccia et d’autres, selon lesquels Bess, l’héroïne angélique du film, accomplit paradoxalement un acte authentique et féminin par un surinvestissement identificatoire (et suicidaire) du désir machiste de son mari, qui la pousse à faire l’amour avec d’autres hommes. Elle confirmerait ainsi l’impasse de la différence sexuelle et déstabiliserait l’ordre symbolique phallique et masculin. En contraste avec une telle lecture, cet article avance l’idée que l’héroïne est plutôt prisonnière de ce qu’Angela McRobbie appelle « la mascarade post-féministe », une gender performance féminine qui renvoie à d’anciennes formes de soumission au patriarcat. S’y adjoint toutefois une distance ironique ayant pour fonction de préserver l’espace de liberté du sujet. Dans un élan cynique qui, de fait, critique la position post-féministe qui confond ironie et liberté, le réalisateur assimile la foi de Bess à son jeu devant l’œil de la caméra, trahissant ainsi son scepticisme quant à l’idée d’un sujet féminin qui ne serait pas entièrement saisi par l’appareil cinématographique patriarcal.

Haut de page

Texte intégral


1Lars von Trier’s controversial Breaking the Waves has been read by critics both as a radical feminist parable and as a testament to its director’s male chauvinism. This paper revisits this debate, offering a possible synthesis of the conflicting arguments from a Lacanian perspective. A brief synopsis of the plot may be useful here. The film starts with Bess, a naive, deeply religious girl from the strict Presbyterian community of an isolated Scottish coastal village marrying Jan, a foreigner working on a nearby oil rig. The elders of the church, already suspicious about the outsider, turn more and more hostile as they witness Bess’s uncontrollable euphoria unleashed by her sexual awakening. By the Puritan standards of the community she loves her husband too much, as she herself admits once; therefore, when Jan leaves for a lengthy work cycle on the rig, she has a hard time coping with his absence, praying to God to bring him back early. Her wish gets unexpectedly granted but only through a tragic turn of events: Jan suffers a severe head injury in an accident and gets paralyzed from the neck down. Feeling guilty for causing his misfortune, Bess is ready to do anything to improve her husband’s condition. Consequently, when he asks her to have sex with other men and then tell him about it in explicit detail so that he will feel more alive, despite her initial resistance she finally accepts the role that will lead to her demise and excommunication from the church community. She gradually becomes isolated as her obsession with having sex for her husband grows; she takes it to be God’s will, and she is convinced that by following it she can actually make him walk again. In the end she visits a ship of dangerous criminals, consciously putting her life at risk—an endeavor from which she barely gets out alive, only to hear that Jan did in fact not get better after her self-sacrificial act. She dies in self-doubt, despair and total abandonment: the religious leaders of the village proclaim her a sinner at her funeral; the court classifies her as a sexual pervert. And yet, after her death, Jan miraculously regains his ability to walk. With a group of friends he steals Bess’s body from the morgue and sets out to the sea to give her a proper burial. After they put her to eternal sleep, however, another miracle happens: church bells start ringing from the sky, as if God himself wanted to announce Bess’s ascension to heaven.

2Due to its controversial narrative, Breaking the Waves divided critics and audiences, and generated a large number of academic responses which can be clearly separated into two main groups. On one side there are those who emphasize how the film subverts the normative frame of the patriarchal symbolic order by affirming the excesses of feminine sexuality (Zizek, Heath, Keefer, Linafelt, Makarushka, Restuccia) and/or through its neo-Brechtian formal techniques (Bainbridge, Gordon, Pence, McLaughlin). Most of these critics refrain, however, from the simple celebration of Bess’s sublime transgressions, being aware that the price she has to pay for them is ultimately self-annihilation. By contrast, a smaller number of interpretations are downright hostile to von Trier’s project, accusing him of creating a fetishized spectacle of female suffering that reifies rather than critiques male chauvinist fantasies (Faber, Brittain, Quigley). Lacanian readings of the film (by Zizek, Heath, Restuccia or McLaughlin) tend to fall into the first category, elaborating on Lacan’s theory of feminine jouissance from his seminar Encore. As Zizek provocatively argues, the film’s pious heroine, who lets herself be raped and murdered out of a guilt ridden obsession with saving her husband from the wheelchair, performs an authentic feminine act precisely in her overidentification with his male chauvinistic desire pressing her to have sex with other men. Such an act, he suggests, can be directly opposed to the feminine masquerade where the illusion of the feminine mystique, of a hidden imaginary essence of Woman behind all her masks, is maintained and thus caught in what Lacan called the phallic logic based on a constitutive exception. Simply put, for Zizek, overidentification with this masculinist fantasy of Woman-beyond-the-mask actually undermines its efficacy, makes it inoperative through its open, vulgar display as the embodiment of nothing. Accordingly, it is only when Bess is able to give up chasing this beyond—in a moment seemingly coinciding with her total subordination to Jan’s wishes during her last suicidal mission—that she performs the ultimate sacrifice of love (“Femininity”).

3While agreeing with the Zizekian understanding of feminine jouissance in general, this paper argues that von Trier’s presentation of Bess nonetheless remains trapped in a phallic framework. Instead of an act of self-deconstruction, her character seems to be involved rather in what McRobbie called postfeminist masquerade, a feminine gender performance that returns to old forms of patriarchal subordination with an ironic distance, imagining itself to be free from any “really existing” disciplinary mechanism because of choosing to act for the gaze of a transcendental authority (McRobbie 63). In a cynical move which serves as a dubious critique of the postfeminist position, von Trier equates Bess’s belief in God with her acting for the gaze of his camera, betraying his skepticism about a feminine subject not captured by the cinema’s patriarchal apparatus and thus about the possibility of feminine Other jouissance in general.

The Lacanian Sexual Difference

4The Lacanian notion of sexual difference is often misunderstood as yet another ideological binary of psychoanalysis where instead of Freud’s outdated biologism the essential difference between unequal subject positions is taken to be the necessary quality of language itself (Butler 37). What Lacan calls sexuation, however, is not only not based on anatomical difference, but it also does not simply designate the social construction of gender. Instead of referring to particular symbolic categories it relates to the symbolic order as such, to the set of signifiers that constitute a language insofar as it is always necessarily incomplete, unable to signify itself. His early work locates the feminine subject in the paradoxical place of the big Other’s (the social symbolic order’s) lack that he also calls the phallus, the exceptional signifier that signifies the very inability of the symbolic to close upon itself. Insofar as the Lacanian subject as such is nothing but the place of a void in the symbolic, it is the relation to the phallus that determines one’s sexuated position. In patriarchal-Oedipal societies it is men who have control over phallic signifiers that suture subjects into the field of the symbolic, turning their former, constitutive negativity (lack) into positivity by naming it, and thereby exchanging their vulnerability for power over society’s dominant discourses. This results in the opposition between the masculine having the phallus qua signifier and the feminine being the phallus qua remainder-lack that cannot be symbolized, two mutually exclusive positions which leads Lacan to conclude that men desire precisely what they are not, that is, women as lack embodied (objet a) whereas women want the phallus they cannot have. Crucially, in this early framework both male and female subjects acquire jouissance (enjoyment) through their (symbolic or imaginary) relation to/competition over the phallus (“Signification” 575-85).

5In his later work, however, Lacan complicates his previous formulations by introducing an additional, non-phallic jouissance on the feminine side which he calls the “jouissance of being” (Encore 70) through which women relate to the big Other “insofar as it is barred” (80), without this lack being mediated (represented) by the phallus. This doesn’t mean that Lacan simply posits this feminine non-all outside the phallic function that sutures subjects into the symbolic order. In his formulas of sexuation (figure 1.) both the masculine (left) and the feminine (right) positions are still defined in relation to the phallic function. However, the first line of the formulas reverses his earlier claims by suggesting that it is the feminine position that follows the phallic logic without an exception while the masculine side is not fully submitted to it. Yet, Lacan’s paradoxical conclusion in the following line is that it is woman, despite her complete alienation in the symbolic, who escapes full subordination to the phallus while man, despite his partial freedom from it, gets caught in the symbolic entirely.

6Zizek suggests to resolve this apparent contradiction by turning to topology, emphasizing how Lacan places phallic jouissance and the symbolic order on two different levels of reality: “What Lacan designates as the 'phallic function' is this very splitting between the domain of phallic enjoyment and the desexualized 'public' field that eludes it - that is to say, 'Phallic' is this self-limitation of the Phallus, this positing of an Exception” (Metastases 153). Consequently, he argues, all men are caught in the phallic function not despite but because they maintain a subjective distance towards it, towards their own public-symbolic mask of power; they enjoy this very ironic distance from it in a place of exception where they imagine themselves having the real Phallus that completes the symbolic order. Such a semblance of an impossible fullness supporting men’s phallic transgressions, however, “merely ‘gives body’ to the impotence/inconsistency of the big Other” (Indivisible 157). By contrast, Zizek interprets the feminine non-all as the position from which the subject “'sees through' the fascinating presence of the Phallus, that she is able to discern in it the 'filler' of the inconsistency of the big Other” (Indivisible 157). She is able to do this because all of woman is submitted to the phallic function without exception, that is, women know that there is not and cannot be such a thing as the real Phallus outside the symbolic order (Indivisible 157-59). One might say that it is this knowledge that constitutes woman’s Other jouissance, however Lacan is quick to add, somewhat enigmatically, that such knowledge cannot be articulated through language as it does not exist in the symbolic; it rather ex-sists, it can only be experienced through the body (Encore 74). For this reason, Lacan’s claim that “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” (Encore 144) means that the feminine and the masculine logic of sexuation represent two antinomic modes of totalizing the symbolic order as well as two irreconcilable ways to enjoy its lack. Sexual difference for him is thus the name of a fundamental deadlock of symbolization that accompanies every subject position, masculine and feminine alike, destabilizing each through the exposure to the other’s incompatible way of making sense of the very same universe, pushing them repeatedly to either perpetuate the symbolic status quo or render it inoperative.

Sexual Difference in Breaking the Waves

7The Lacanian question about Breaking the Waves is, then, whether it is indeed able to show the inconsistency of the film’s patriarchal universe by evoking feminine jouissance as the element that cannot be captured by its logic, or whether its account of Bess remains a masculine fantasy about the real Phallus. What complicates the analysis is that von Trier positions his film in the middle of a historical shift from one patriarchal order to another, from the rigid disciplinary logic of the traditional Presbyterian community controlled by male village elders towards the neoliberal patriarchy with a human face represented by the migrant workers on the oil rig who can afford not to take themselves too seriously. When the two discursive regimes meet, they appear to be polar opposites of each other despite their participation in the same homosocial rituals such as the community’s men only funeral services or the drinking contest at Bess and Jan’s wedding. In the case of the latter, when a rig worker challenges the village preacher by finishing a can of beer in one go, the old man responds by drinking a glass of lemonade. When the worker then jokingly crushes the beer can in his hand, the old man breaks his glass into pieces cutting his hand, without the slightest change, however, to his grim facial expression.

8Consequently, when it comes to Bess’s place, it’s not enough to emphasize how her unruly character, her unsatisfiable desire for singing, dancing and sexual pleasure unsettles the normative gender role she is supposed to play in her religion where women are subordinated to the male Word of the Law as they are not even allowed to speak in the church (Heath 97). Such subversion is also performed by the masculine outsiders from the rig, allegorically standing in for the forces of global capitalism destroying traditional forms of life, melting all that is solid into air (Marx 482-97). The gender binary of this new era is properly set up only when Jan has to leave Bess behind at home to go work on the oil rig, breaking their temporary illusory unity in phallic jouissance gained from their shared mockery of the village’s ascetic mores. Bess reacts with a hysterical outbreak, feeling betrayed and excluded, not from the normative masculinist symbolic regime of the church fathers but from the no less homosocial space of its exception Jan is withdrawing into, a place where she is not allowed to follow him. In her impotent rage she starts beating on a large industrial machine in the shipyard (an obvious stand-in for the oil rig) with a piece of metal while yelling inarticulately. Jan comes up to her smiling, hugs her while she is trying to fight him off; he takes away her stick and strikes a few blows at the rusty pipes himself. But Bess does not return his smile; their shared moment of juvenile delinquency is overshadowed by the disapproving gaze of dock workers staring at them from above, representing the exclusivity of the male homosocial space/world Jan is about to enter. Subsequently, after their departure, von Trier depicts the everyday life of the rig workers as the utopia of phallic bliss: the small group of men cooperates harmoniously without a leader, shower and smoke a joint together after a day of hard labour, far away from the controlling eyes of any symbolic authority.

9Bess in the meantime grows increasingly anxious and impatient about Jan’s return, praying to God to bring him back before his scheduled vacation. After her prayer we immediately cut to the accident on the rig where the bursting oil breaks through the pipes, injuring Jan’s best friend, as if to embody Bess’s jealous rage against her husband preferring male camaraderie over making love to her. Jan nonetheless manages to revive the man only to get hit in the head himself by a collapsing drill which paralyzes him from the neck down. As a perfect illustration of what the early Lacan meant by the deadlock of sexual difference, neither Bess, nor Jan get what they want. Jan is mad at having been forcefully removed from the phallic space of exception (he yells “Don’t touch me!” when Bess wants to embrace him), and Bess now feels guilty for destroying – along with the homosocial playground separating them – her husband’s sexual potency (what she does not see, of course, is that the space of exception is constitutive of male sexual potency as such; if it collapses, so does phallic jouissance).

10If the first half of the film was organized around the phallic logic based on a constitutive exception, the second half, thanks to Jan’s inability to move, offers the feminine look at the world where the source of jouissance is not the distance from symbolic norms but the symbolic itself insofar as it is always necessarily lacking. Bess’s love for this lack, for her paralyzed and impotent husband, however, is undermined by Jan’s own phallic fantasy to reconstruct himself as a superego figure who, contrary to the church elders, does not prohibit but commands enjoyment (see Encore 3). By doing this he can disavow his own castration (lack) insofar as he directly identifies with the Freudian primordial father before the law who serves as the obscene underside of the symbolic order (Enjoy 158). His answer to Bess’s feminine jouissance, to her unconditional willingness (eagerness even) to love him as he is, is thus to put a distance between them by stirring up further guilt feelings in her, assuming that she will not be able to actually grant his request to have sex with other men (when she first returns with fabricated stories, he admonishes her for not carrying out his orders). What Bess is faced with here is a certain double bind of the patriarchal demand towards women; for the men of the church, she always already had enjoyed too much, for which she was marked as half-witted, irresponsible, and hysterical so that the whole village had to collectively intervene and separate her from her husband (her sister-in-law literally pulls her out of the helicopter about to leave for the rig with the workers). For the paralyzed Jan qua obscene father, however, she never enjoys enough, despite her increasingly severe transgressions of the official symbolic law. What this Freudian dialectic between Madonna and whore eliminates, of course, is the possibility of feminine jouissance insofar as both of these categories reduce woman to her relation to the masculine phallus, and for that reason Jan, despite his superficial difference from the village’s traditional patriarchs, is revealed to be the ultimate support of their project.

11Bess’s answer to this double bind is her refusal to separate the phallically divided two domains and her two roles corresponding to it. When she starts her increasingly more daring sexual adventures with strangers, she does it not out of a guilt ridden drive to transgress and repent but out of love for Jan, in order to make him feel better with her stories of enjoyment. Or, as Zizek puts it: “Bess’ jouissance is a jouissance “of the Other” in more than one way: it is not only enjoyment in words but also (and this is ultimately just another aspect of the same thing) in the sense of utter alienation—her enjoyment is totally alienated/externalized in Jan as her Other. That is, it resides entirely in her awareness that she is enabling the Other to enjoy.” (“Sexual Difference” 59-60) This is one way to read Lacan’s distinction between sexual intercourse which is related to objet a as a phallic fantasy, and making love which he associates with poetry (Encore 72). For Zizek, Lacan’s early definition of femininity as masquerade (“Signification” 584) is itself caught in the phallic logic insofar as it keeps alive the illusion of the feminine mystique, of a hidden essence behind all the masks as the ultimate constitutive exception of the patriarchal universe. This is why, Zizek argues, it is only when Bess is able to give up the place of this beyond she occupies in Jan’s fantasy, the moment paradoxically coinciding with her total subordination to his wishes in her last suicidal mission, that is, with her “subjective destitution” (“Indivisible” 166), that she performs the ultimate sacrifice of love. When she willingly returns to the ship of violent criminals who formerly threatened her in order to sexually service the crew, she knows she is risking her life. Through this final sacrifice, however, which according to Zizek is also the full assertion of her autonomy, “she undermines the phallic economy and enters the domain of feminine jouissance by way of her very unconditional surrender to it” (“Femininity”). Yet, as I will argue, it is doubtful whether such a conclusion is a faithful reading of Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, or indeed Zizek’s own earlier account of them, in relation to Breaking the Waves.

12Zizek’s reading is criticized by Brittain, who reproaches him as well as von Trier for creating an aesthetic spectacle out of Bess’s suffering, being only interested in the sublime idea of a pure sacrifice that they can view from a comfortable distance, without questioning any of their male privileges (141). Similar to Flaubert’s paradigmatic identification with Madame Bovary, their fetishization of an imaginary femininity can go hand in hand with sharing a historical period’s hostility towards actual women (Huyssen 46). Or as Brittain argues, such an approach serves as a great excuse not to examine and politicize the social conditions that destroy the lives of women like Bess, conditions that, I suggested, can be mapped as the shift from the disciplinary version of patriarchy to neoliberal forms of indirect domination. Brittain’s critique resonates with other feminist readings of the film claiming that its excessive depiction of a woman’s suffering becomes counterproductive and anti-cathartic, conveniently associating “woman’s ‘will’ with her subordination” (Quigley 162). Faber refers to this process, borrowing Kristeva’s term, as the “phallic idealization of Woman” (Faber 65), and points out that Bess’s transformation from housewife to prostitute by no means puts her outside of patriarchal ideology since “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” (Faber 69). Since this argument exactly follows the logic of the Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, which belong to the later period, it should also be at least partially compatible with Zizek’s reading of the film, which, while it ignores the historical materialist aspects of Bess’s struggle, nonetheless claims to be fiercely against any idealization of a transcendental feminine essence.

13The more obvious targets of Quigley’s and Faber’s critique, then, are those interpretations of Breaking the Waves that posit the sublime-abject body of Bess beyond the limits of the phallic-symbolic order. One of the most consistent of these readings, using a Lacanian framework, is offered by Restuccia who argues that the shift Bess is going through in the second half of the film is from hysteric to the Woman who does not exist, from being the immanent excess of the masculine logic into becoming its exterior limit. Such a potential, she claims, is already present in the internal contradictions of the hysteric’s position. On the one hand, her aim is to keep her desire perpetually unsatisfied by finding, again and again, the lack in the phallic Other (Bess’s mocking of church rituals etc.); on the other hand, she simultaneously offers herself to plug this hole in order to create real phallic potency (her turning into the perfect sex object). The paradox is that if the hysteric were to succeed in reaching her goal, it would effectively undermine the aim of her activity: she would be exposed to the “satisfaction of utmost pleasure” (Restuccia 193). Thus, normally, she just pretends that she wants to be the exclusive object of the Other’s desire and she instead moves from one man to another. But it is possible, as Restuccia suggests, that she goes to the end with her logic by identifying with the real-impossible object of male desire (with the Lacanian objet a as the embodiment of nothing), thus becoming the Woman who does not exist through self-annihilation, “paired with the Man beyond castration” (Restuccia 194). According to the author, in the end of Breaking the Waves, Bess and Jan become such a couple through Bess’s ultimate act of love in her self-sacrifice.

14Restuccia thus claims that if we push the hysteric’s logic far enough, we arrive at what Lacan called feminine jouissance, the external, unrepresentable limit to the hysteric’s quest for phallic representation. She suggests that “‘woman's’ jouissance is in fact an enigma because it is more than what the ‘man’ can conceptualize” (201). The problem with this formula is that it fails to take into account what the Lacan of the 50s already demonstrated with his theory of masquerade, namely that masculine jouissance itself is always supported by something unrepresentable within its own logic, by a fantasmatic element of absolute negativity: “Paradoxical as this formulation may seem, I am saying that it is in order to be the phallus [-] —that is, the signifier of the Other's desire [-]—that a woman rejects an essential part of femininity, namely, all its attributes, in the masquerade. It is for what she is not that she expects to be desired as well as loved.” (“Signification” 583) The logical conclusion of this masquerade is indeed feminine self-annihilation on the one hand (as in Bess’s suicidal act), and the appearance of a non-castrated masculine figure on the other (Jan who magically regains his ability to walk after his wife’s death). While Restuccia acknowledges that this arrangement keeps “the cult of Woman” (206) that characterized the hysteric alive, she argues that the film successfully deconstructs the ideological concept of Woman by demonstrating that it can only be realized through the absolute negation of the female body that fills in its place. Similarly, for Restuccia, Bess’s hysterical claim that “she can believe,” that she can make Jan complete (into a “man beyond castration”) “forever remains just that—a belief”; her true sexual partner is thus the similarly nonexistent God (206).

15Such a reading, however, curiously ignores the fact that not only does Jan recover from his paralysis (his “castration”) against all odds, but the final shot of the film effectively makes God himself exist through the miracle of the church bells ringing from the sky, an image with unmistakably phallic connotations, making up for the empty (“castrated”) church tower in the village (McLaughlin 99). What Restuccia does not see is that Bess’s heroic insistence on realizing the sexual relationship as impossible is already framed by the director’s cynical gaze, offering a mediating meta-level, a god’s view from where the couple is seen as completing each other, making Woman exist in the masculine diegetic reality, precisely as the fetishized Woman who doesn’t exist. Another way of saying that the “good” woman is the dead woman.

Postfeminist Masquerade

16It is the film’s use of the divine point of view as the final moment of suture that complicates any positive account of Bess’s feminine jouissance. While most commentators emphasize the incredible, almost ridiculously melodramatic nature of this ending, few of them make a connection between this gaze of God looking down from the sky and Bess directly glancing into the camera for fleeting moments throughout the film. This latter gesture is usually understood as von Trier following the Dogma manifesto’s anti-Hollywood aesthetic guidelines along with his use of handheld camera, lack of continuity editing, or the overproximity of actors, all contributing to a sense of documentary realism. For McLaughlin, these formal techniques, especially the breaking of the fourth wall indicate an “ecstatic overflow” of Bess’s enjoyment that cannot be contained even by the cinematic apparatus. Zizek, by contrast, points out that von Trier himself suggests the exact opposite, that if he had used the conventional generic form of Hollywood melodramas, the story would have been too suffocating for the viewer (“Femininity”). For Brittain, this translates into a futile attempt on the director’s part to mute Bess’s suffering, or as I will argue, to contain feminine jouissance within the phallic logic.

17That is to say, how could it be that Bess’s looking into the camera, instead of creating discomfort in the viewer by subverting his voyeuristic visual pleasure (Mulvey), actually leads to a release of tension? A possible answer lies in the series of delusional conversations the heroine has with God by talking to herself in church, embodying both the ostensibly feminine pious voice of God’s humble servant and the masculine wrath of the superego/master unleashed at her for not being “good” enough. What could be a painful scene of a woman internalizing patriarchy’s sadistic demands gains a humorous undertone with Bess playfully glancing at the viewer, even rolling her eyes once while making the sign of the cross after her prayer. The same goes for the various hardships including rape and torture she goes through willingly; the Brechtian form of the film undermines the transcendental-voyeuristic gaze of the camera that Mulvey identified as the ideological support of patriarchy, making it instead part of the diegetic reality, thus undermining the sadistic enjoyment the viewer could get out of Bess’s suffering. Or, to be more precise, since Bess is the only character with this extra dimensional sensitivity, her gaze does not so much draw attention to the film’s production process as it provokes the response in the spectator that “she is only acting, pretending to suffer,” that is, she is cleverly deceiving everyone in the film by pretending to identify with the masculine fantasy of the perfect Woman.

18Despite its superficial attractiveness, this solution nonetheless regresses into what Zizek identifies as a typical misreading of the Lacanian formulas of sexuation whereby woman “is always split between a part of her which accepts the role of a seductive masquerade aimed at fascinating the man, attracting the male gaze, and another part of her which resists being drawn into the dialectic of (male) desire, a mysterious jouissance beyond Phallus about which nothing can be said” (“Femininity”). At the level of the narrative we see Bess’s entanglement in a masquerade for male desire but through the cinematic form, we see her acting for another gaze simultaneously that seems to give her agency over her acts in the diegetic space. Significantly, such breaking down of the fourth wall works against her collapsing the difference between desexualized public sphere and its obscene underside (her refusing to distinguish between the role of Madonna and whore), that is, the distinction that keeps the apparatus of patriarchy alive. By introducing an additional level of reality supposedly holding the key to her jouissance, she is reintegrated into the phallic logic of exception by turning her diegetic performance into a masquerade. As Doane puts it, “Masquerade […] involves a realignment of femininity, the recovery, or more accurately, simulation, of the missing gap or distance. To masquerade is to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and one's image” (Doane 82).

19Alternatively, one could argue that Bess does not know about the camera, that is, she does not believe in any transcendental gaze of the real, of God as her subject supposed to know witnessing the secret of her femininity. Instead, when she looks out of the picture, her gesture could simply mark the gaps within the symbolic order, without any disidentification and irony. This, however, is not von Trier’s position. It’s almost like he was using the camera as a phallic apparatus to make the gaze of beyond exist, capturing and transforming the feminine jouissance of Bess’s immanent look into a masquerade. Furthermore, to avoid any misunderstanding, he even shows the viewer the signified of her look in the final reverse shot of the church bells, presented as a collective hallucinatory fantasy of Jan and his crew, a cynical reminder that she was acting for the male gaze all along, that the mysterious woman of beyond is just another male fantasy.

20Von Trier thus adds a cynical twist to theories about a feminine excess in constant becoming, always supposedly overflowing the frame of representation offered by patriarchy’s phallic idealization of Woman. Thornham argues, for instance, that 19th century paintings of women which elevate them into representations of transcendence try in vain to eliminate their actual individual presence, always threatening to disrupt the male fantasy (Thornham 30). In the case of Breaking the Waves, however, the male gaze wins a double victory, first through the idealization of Bess in the (diegetic) big Other (as the benevolent village doctor puts it: “she was good”), then by suturing back her excessive suicidal act that escaped the symbolic into the patriarchal world, destroying the illusion of her freedom from it even in her death where she becomes framed by the Other of the Other (the message of the church bells could be: “that’s all she really was, good”). This maneuver first and foremost challenges any understanding of the feminine masquerade as “taking control of the mask” (Holland), the idea that by simulating the masculine castration/exception they are excluded from, women can gain power and agency (Doane). For this reason, in order to account for the double bind of femininity in von Trier’s film, one should consider the contemporary backlash against second wave feminism that started in the 80s, which is not simply a nostalgic movement towards a new traditionalism and the rehabilitation of male dominance, but also, more significantly, the successful cooptation of the emancipatory thrust of the women’s movement, aligning it with the participatory techniques of neoliberal governmentality that has the aim of strengthening the status quo (McRobbie 25-33). As McRobbie argues, today “women are being disempowered by the very discourses they are being offered as substitutes for feminism” (49), including what she terms the “postfeminist masquerade”, a social practice whereby:

The young woman is congratulated, reprimanded and encouraged to embark on a new regime of self-perfectibility (i.e. self-completion). [...] And now that she is able to make her own choices, it seems as though the fearful terrain of male approval fades away, and is replaced instead with a new horizon of self-imposed feminine cultural norms. Patriarchal authority is subsumed within a regime of self-policing whose strict criteria form the benchmark against which women must endlessly and repeatedly measure themselves, from the earliest years right through to old age. (49)

21It is easy to distinguish such self-surveillance practices in Bess’s schizophrenic conversations with God which gradually take over the place of her former direct subordination to the masculine voice. Not only does she neglect her duties in the church as a cleaner, she also turns more and more insubordinate during service, breaking the silent role she was supposed to play by questioning the authority of the patriarchal law: “How can you love a word? You can only love a human being!”

22Instead of completely breaking with the church rituals, however, she keeps performing them with an ironic distance. As McRobbie stresses, such a disidentification is characteristic of the new postfeminist masquerade which involves constant references to its own artifice (Bess’s looking into the camera), renounces the powerful figures of the lesbian and the feminist (the emancipated sisterhood offered by Dodo, Bess’s widowed sister-in-law), performs an excessive spectacle of femininity (Bess’s self-prostitution) and signals submission to an invisible authority (Bess’s theater of praying to God) (66). McRobbie also warns about the dangers of presenting women as indifferent to their lack, to their continuing subordination to signifiers of patriarchal domination simply because the image of feminine self-sufficiency gains ideological priority in neoliberalism (103). In other words, by fetishizing individual choice and the right for playful disidentification from formerly dominant ideologies, postfeminism “disarticulates” (McRobbie 26) the structural understanding of the feminine subject’s place in a social totality, thereby depoliticizing it.

23Von Trier seems to be aware of this, depicting Bess’s liberation from the old fashioned forms of patriarchal discipline with bitter irony. He observes the emergence of the postfeminist believer in her as the scientist documents the life of a lab rat, never letting her out of the cage. Truly there is something disturbing in Bess’s quantification of her relationship with God, in her obsession that a given amount of repentance paid to her own superego will have measurable results in real world. In this regard she is the perfect neoliberal subject that Lazzarato called the “indebted man,» someone for whom the infinite quest to pay off her (real and imagined) creditors is inseparable from the path towards moral betterment. Bess’s endless self-deprecation is thus the very technology of the self through which she forms herself into such a subject, who can only be called properly “good” after her voluntary self-annihilation. What von Trier uncovers behind this technique of neoliberal governance is the fantasmatic-spectral figure of the Freudian obscene father, returning as the evil God of capitalism seeking vengeance and the destruction of his debtors. Yet, the director’s clever critique of postfeminist ideology remains a cynical one insofar as I have suggested, he himself disavows the ontological deadlock of sexual difference, thus actively participating in the bleak vision of the post-ideological world he tries to criticize. To present his paranoid conclusion that there is no way out of the patriarchal machine, he first has to mute the actual instances of feminine jouissance in his film by overwriting them with Bess’s final suicidal act such that it fits perfectly into the phallic logic exception.

24This is also the problem with Zizek’s interpretation of the film, a curious eclectic mix of the topological reading of the formulas of sexuation he himself proposed elsewhere (Metastases 153) that allows for a feminine non-all undoing the phallic logic, and the early Lacan’s more fatalistic model of woman embodying the real-impossible phallus for men. Following the logic of this earlier view Zizek affirms that “the price to be paid for such immediate coincidence of religious faith and sexual jouissance is psychosis” (“Femininity”). As I have suggested, it is only the intervention of masculine (neoliberal, postfeminist) power apparatuses that transform the zone of indistinction of Bess’s feminine jouissance into a masquerade of madness to constitute.

25The later Lacan, however, does not lend itself to this reading of feminine jouissance as some kind of suicidal act whereby the desperate female subject overidentifies with the object of male desire, the void of the symbolic, killing herself just to teach a passive aggressive lesson to men about the unjust distribution of phallic power. Any such lesson, as von Trier adequately demonstrates by pushing this seemingly feminine moralizing to its absolute conclusion, ultimately turns out to be nothing more than the self-propelling movement of a masculine-phallic Spirit returning to itself: in her death, Bess is transformed, in a moment of transsexual apotheosis, into a phallic God-like power restoring order to the masculine universe. What the later Lacan does allow for, as indicated with the top right corner of his formulas, is that the feminine subject (Bess in this case) “suspends the very gap between the big Other and jouissance, between the symbolic and the real.” This aspect of Zizek’s reading of the film is infinitely more convincing than his attempt to transform Bess into the ultimate phallic exception.

Haut de page


Bainbridge, Caroline. “The Trauma Debate: Just Looking? Traumatic Affect, Film Form and Spectatorship in the Work of Lars von Trier.” Screen 45:4 (2004): 391-400. Print.

Brittain, Cristopher Craig. “Subjective Destitution and the Postmodern Saint: A Reply to Slavoj Zizek's interpretation of Breaking the Waves.” Hybrid Spaces: Theory, Culture, Economy. Ed. Johannes Angermueller et al. New York: Transaction, 2000. 137-48. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Film and Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator.” Screen 23.3-4 (1982): 74-88. Print.

Faber, Alyda. “Redeeming Sexual Violence? A Feminist Reading of Breaking the Waves.” Literature & Theology 17.1 (2003): 59-75. Print.

Gordon, Suzy. “Breaking the Waves and the Negativity of Melanie Klein: Rethinking the Female Spectator.” Screen 45.3 (2004): 206-25. Print.

Heath, Stephen. “God, Faith and Film: Breaking the Waves.” Literature & Theology 12.1 (1998): 93-107. Print.

Holland, Samantha. Alternative Femininities: Body, Age and Identity. New York: Berg, 2004. Print.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Encore: On Feminine Sexuality The Limits of Love and Knowledge. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York, W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.

---. “The Signification of the Phallus.” Jacques Lacan. Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 575-85. Print.

Linafelt, Tod and Kyle Keefer. “The End of Desire: Theologies of Eros in the Song of Songs and Breaking the Waves.” Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together. Ed. S. Brant Plate and David Jasper. New York: The American Academy of Religion, 1999. 49-61. Print.

Makarushka, Irena S. M. “Transgressing Goodness in Breaking the Waves.” Journal of Religion and Film 2.1 (1998). Web. 31. Jan 2014.

Marx, Karl. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Marx & Engels Collected Works: Volume 06. 477-520. Trans. Richard Dixon et al. New York: International Publishers, 1976. Print.

McLaughlin, Becky. “Playing Ball with God: Breaking the Law in Breaking the Waves.” Critical Studies 26 (2010): 85-100. Print.

McRobbie, Angela. The Aftermath of Feminism. London: Sage, 2009. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Print.

Quigley, Paula. “The Spectacle of Suffering: The ‘Woman’s Film” and Lars von Trier.” Studies in European Cinema 9.2-3 (2012): 155-68. Print.

Pence, Jeffrey. “Cinema of the Sublime: Theorizing the Ineffable.” Poetics Today 25.1 (2004): 29-66. Print.

Restuccia, Frances L. “Impossible Love in Breaking the Waves.” Lacan and Contemporary Film. Ed. Todd McGowan and Sheila Kunkle. New York: Other Press, 2004. 187-209. Print.

Thornham, Sue. Women, Feminism and Media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996. Print.

Von Trier, Lars. Breaking the Waves. October Films. 1996. Film.

Zizek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

---. “Femininity between Goodness and Act.” The Sinthome 14 (2013). Web. 30 Jan 2008.

---. The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. New York: Verso, 1996. Print.

---. The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality. New York: Verso, 1994. Print.

---. “The Real of Sexual Difference.” Reading Seminar XX: Lacan’s Major Work on Love, Knowledge, and Feminine Sexuality. Ed. Bruce Fink and Suzanne Barnard. Albany: SUNY Press, 2002. 57-77. Print.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Fichier image/png, 37k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Tamas NAGYPAL, « The Postfeminist Masquerade and the Cynical Male Gaze: The Disavowal of Sexual Difference in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4093

Haut de page



York University, Toronto tamas.nagypal@gmail.comTamas Nagypal is a PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, Toronto. His current research focuses on cynicism and capitalist realism in contemporary neo-noir. He has publications in Zizek and Media Studies: A Reader and the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals