Images from Audition

Aoyama being tortured by Asami.

Asami goes after Aoyama’s son.

Aoyama tries in vain to warn his son.

Aoyama wakes up in the hotel room again.

Asami is still by his side.

Aoyama feels his leg.

The film cuts back to the torture sequence.

Asami falls down the stairs and breaks her neck.

Asami looks in Aoyama’s direction.

Aoyama’s last glance at Asami.

Images from Breaking the Waves

Jan’s friend drinking beer

Church elder drinking lemonade

Squeezing the can

Breaking the glass

Bess strikes the scaffold.

Bess stops the plane from departing.

Bess and a stranger on the bus

Doctor’s testimony: “Bess was too good.”

“Bess’s suffered from being good?”

After Bess’ death, Jan miraculously walks again.

Jan kisses Bess one last time.

Images from Dancer in the Dark

The lifeless factory

In Selma’s fantasy, the factory is lit up.

The factory full of vibrant color

“I’ve seen it all.”

Bill is resurrected and dances with Selma.

“It’s the last song.”


When properly informed, mature audience members voluntarily engage with sentimental art. They understand the disparity between the world the artwork depicts and the world they live in. They do not naively form corresponding beliefs about the real world simply based on their experience of sentimental films. Certainly there exists a possibility for the under-aged unable to make such a distinction, and the industry attempts to protect them through such means as censorship and the current rating system. However, the irony of sentimental art lies in the fact that such contrived scenarios can evoke emotional responses at all.

For example, I always feel sentimental when I watch my favorite episode of The Simpsons, in which Bart and Lisa play ice hockey for opposing teams. In the championship match, the score is tied, and Bart gets a penalty shot with only four seconds left. Bart, standing in front of the goalpost, recalls a childhood memory of Lisa. The two then smile at each other and peacefully skate out of the rink together, leaving the final score tied and the crowd — including their father Homer — outraged by the outcome of the game. My sentimental response to this episode of The Simpsons is in part based upon my understanding that Bart and Lisa's sweet reconciliation is unlike anything in my own childhood experience. Similarly, the idealized families or couples in many soap operas and drama series such as Beverly Hills 90210, Seventh Heaven and The O.C. are not only represented as “rare” within the fictional world itself, but, more importantly, viewers know how unrealistic these representations of families are.

As long as we are aware of the moral idealization involved in a sentimental portrayal, we can learn from the portrayal. This is because sentimental idealization clarifies moral distinctions. However, more significantly, the function of the "simplistic" moral divide is not found in an easy or complete identification with the protagonist. In fact, the absolute divide between conflicting values discourages such allegiance, as I will discuss in the next section. Rather, the simplistic moral divide serves as reassurance of the possibility, if not the actual existence, of the moral ideals represented. This is not a simple gratification of the audience’s moral fantasies. Instead, this provides an occasion for the audience to be reminded of the absence of such virtue today and imagine what it would be like to pursue it in life.

A critic could still point out that sentimentality is not just considered an aesthetic defect for cognitive and moral reasons. He or she could argue that sentimental art is too contrived, and thus exploitive in evoking strong emotions in the audience. Realism is often construed in terms of relations between a film, the world and a set of stylistic approaches. The critical rhetoric of realism traditionally associates lack of artifice or of contrived artistic effect with a higher claim to truth and authenticity in representation. But the three have no systematic correlation. No single film style is a direct vehicle for revealing external reality. Each “realist” film movement postulates its own privileged relation to the world. As Kristin Thompson argues, the notion of realism is historically contingent, and thus may be approached as a formal effect of the work, the function of which is to defamiliarize previously accepted artistic conventions and norms.[16][open endnotes in new window] The employment of alternative editing or cinematographic techniques to the ones employed by the currently dominant film style is thus often regarded as “realistic.” This suggests that realistic style is not necessarily antithetical to sentimentality, since the techniques, which happen to represent an alternative to the dominant style at a certain point in the history of film, could be ones that promote idealized and excessive emotional responses.

If sentimentality is closely tied to moral polarization as I have argued, one can begin to see why sentimentality is often linked to brutalization. If we consider brutalization in terms of the way it sets up moral values, instead of the explicit depiction of cruelty, o ne of the affinities between extreme cinemas can be detected in the presence of an absolute moral divide, comparable to what Smith calls the Manichean moral structure.[17] Such a moral structure diverges from that found in conventional Hollywood cinema, in which characters typically go through a more gradual moral transformation than those in extreme cinema. As A. O. Scott from The New York Times notes, both Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark revolve around the clash between opposite poles of the moral spectrum: one between repressive religious orthodoxy and pagan sexual spiritualism, the other between individual imagination and the intractable authority of the state. A similar moral opposition is palpable in Audition with Aoyama’s polarized conception of women .

Instead of examining sentimentality in isolation — as in the recurring example of Dickens' Little Nell, or portraits of sweet children and cute puppies — one must inquire how the moment-by-moment storytelling method and style of a certain film encourages, and sometimes even undercuts, the audience’s engagement with characters. The aesthetic value of sentimental art should be judged in light of the aesthetic treatment of moral polarity and the formal play involved in bringing out an otherwise straightforward moral message.[18] In their treatment of sentimentality in film, film theorists Ed Tan and Nico Frida provide us with a list of recurring themes that give rise to sentimentality. These include the separation-reunion theme, the justice in jeopardy theme, and the awe-inspiring theme. However, this list is far from exhaustive, and the evocation of sentimentality depends not just on the presence of a certain theme, but on how that theme is treated by a certain film. [19]

It would be more difficult to categorize how sentimentality often plays out in films. Some critics approve of sentimentality only if it is not dealt with in an indulgent way, and is undercut and/or counterbalanced by an opposite tone or mood. Sentimentality may be permissible when inserted momentarily instead of functioning as a film's dominant mode. But no rule of thumb determines what sentimentality achieves in each work. Depending on how a sentimentality is achieved, it can either be an aesthetic merit or an aesthetic defect. For example, Wong Kar-Wai’s entire oeuvre is well known for its sentimental romanticism about unrequited love; critics appreciate it in part for this very quality. By using the theme of romantic agony as material for stylistic experimentation, Wong enriches his films and accentuates their tone of languid melancholy. But as Rey Chow observes, what lies underneath sentimentality — a "mood of endurance" — is the idealization of filiality, a Confucian virtue that is absent in modern Chinese society.[20]

Audition, in a very different genre, is self-reflexive in its treatment of sentimentalism. The protagonist Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is pronouncedly characterized as sentimental in terms of his attitude toward love and marriage, and the film encourages the viewer to assess the (undeserved) outcome and consequences of his sentimentalism. Aoyama, a widower for seven years, hesitantly accepts his producer friend’s suggestion that they hold an audition for a fake film so that Aoyama can find his future wife. Going through the pile of applications, Aoyama finds a perfect candidate: Asami, who is educated, artistic — a former ballerina — and fragile. His producer friend warns him that there is something fishy about Asami. Aoyama dismisses the friend’s warning and starts to court Asami. The middle-aged man’s romanticism and loneliness lead him to ignore evidence of Asami’s instability.

Audition toys with Aoyama’s conception of "ideal" womanhood by juxtaposing it with its utter opposite. Such a dualistic conception of women may betray the status of women within a persistently patriarchal society like Japan or reinforce conflicting male fantasies about women. But the film further experiments with narrative by temporarily effacing the boundary between Aoyama’s hallucinatory states and reality during the long torture sequence, which enables the viewer and Aoyama to retrieve his encounter with Asami up to that point from a different perspective. During the weekend trip to a resort, Aoyama wakes up after making love only to find that Asami has disappeared. Despite his friend's urging him not to look for her, Aoyama uncovers information about Asami's painful and gruesome past. It turns out that she was abused by her stepfather when she was a child, which explains the scars that Aoyama saw in the hotel room. In addition, she might have murdered the owner of the bar, for whom she claimed she had worked for a while. And she might have approached Aoyama with full knowledge that the audition was for a future wife and not for a film role.

In the middle of the Aoyama’s torture by Asami, Aoyama’s son returns home and finds his father injured. As Asami goes after Aoyama’s son, the camera cuts back to the scene at the hotel, this time with Asami still sleeping next to him, as if he’s waking up from dreaming the torture we have just witnessed. He feels his legs and is relieved to find that all of his foot is intact. The film returns to the torture sequence, with Asami continuing her chase of Aoyama’s son, only to fall down the stairs and break her neck. The film ends with Aoyama and Asami looking at each other while Aoyama talks about the meaning of life in a voice-over from their earlier courtship.

Regardless whether the torture sequence is dreamed or real, it reflects Aoyama’s naïve conception of woman as either coy and subservient or vengeful, and it is his naiveté and sentimentalism that make the audience feel sympathy for him for the unjustifiably harsh punishment he receives from Asami. But what is more interesting is the fact that sentimentality plays out at multiple levels in Audition. The film purposely makes it ambiguous, swaying between sentimentality as a character trait and sentimentality as a mode, depending upon how you interpret the status of the torture sequences. If what the audience witnesses is Aoyama's subjective state, then this is a film about sentimentality — or better, about a sentimental character. If the film in fact presents Asami as such a polarized character embodying moral extremes, then the viewer, along with Aoyama, is invited to reassess the conception of the "ideal" woman.

In the next section, I will compare Breaking the Waves with Dancer in the Dark in order to illustrate how, given a similar sentimental mode, each film functions differently in presenting and affirming moral ideals.

Sentimental extremes

Breaking the Waves is set in a small coastal village in Scotland in the 1970s and depicts the transformation of Bess (Emily Watson) from a childlike innocent to a strange devotee of her husband. The film is divided into chapters, which are demarcated by computer-enhanced vistas of landscape accompanied by songs from the seventies such as Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Bess marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), who works on a North Shore oil rig. Jan gets injured and becomes paralyzed from the neck down. He requests that Bess have sexual encounters with other men and tell him stories about these encounters to motivate him to fight for his life. Bess is at first reluctant but eventually agrees. The film follows a narrative trajectory in which the moral values that Bess upholds from the beginning of the film are undermined in the middle of the film and then reaffirmed at the end.

In Breaking the Waves, the moral dichotomy, characteristic of sentimental works in general, is at first represented by conflicts between characters but gradually becomes more explicit as the film depicts the contrast between the forces of good and evil at work upon the characters. The film begins with Bess' meeting with church elders in order to get permission to get married to Jan. Jan and his two friends are portrayed as outsiders, which is further underscored when they arrive by plane for the wedding.

At the wedding banquet, a rather humorous rendering of the divide is seen when one of Jan’s friend competes with a church elder in drinking. Jan’s friend drinks a can of beer in front of the church elder, followed by the church elder's drinking a full glass of lemonade. Jan’s friend squeezes the beer can, followed by the church elder's breaking the lemonade glass with his bare hand. The religious rigidity is reinforced via redundant cues and events such as Jan’s witnessing of a man’s funeral, the lack of church bells, and the prohibition on women speaking during church services. All of these strictures will be either challenged or reversed by Bess' actions. Jan and his friends’ lack of religious conviction is manifest in their attitudes toward sex and drinking, and Jan claims that "love" is what makes and keeps him alive, not faith in god. Bess oscillates between the two.

But the conflict Bess experiences does not merely come from outside — from the conflict between Jan and the church — but also from within. The film constantly juxtaposes her childlike innocence against hysteria and maintains this contrast until her blind faith in God leads to her destruction. One example of this contrast is the way that Bess pretends to be crying when she learns that Jan will soon have to leave the town, and then, upon his departure, runs away from the shore and hysterically strikes a scaffold with an iron bar. Another example is the way that she vomits after performing a sexual favor only to be instantly cheered by the thought of Mary Magdalene and by finding a rabbit.

Bess vomits.

Bess looks off screen.

A glimpse of a rabbit

Bess makes a face at the rabbit.

As the film nears its end, the apparent moral conflict between the religious and the sacrilegious becomes a conflict between good and evil. After Jan realizes that his request in fact puts Bess in danger, he writes on his notepad that the evil in his head makes him desire such things. At the trial, after the church elder reads Dr. Richardson’s medical opinion of Bess, the doctor is given another chance to assess what led to Bess’ death. He claims that he would describe Bess’ condition as "being good." The church elder ironically asks if Bess were suffering a psychological defect of being good, and the doctor denies it. Such a self-reflexive gesture in fact underlines the film’s sentimental mode: complete innocence and goodness is set against complete guilt and evil. In the eyes of the audience, Bess is indeed too good and too devoted to her husband in the name of love.

Although we feel sympathy for Bess, both her personality and her extreme circumstances make it difficult for the audience to approve of either end of the moral spectrum. Jan’s request for Bess to sleep with other men is extreme, if not implausible, and the sight of Bess slowly losing herself is disturbing and devastating. This suggests that an important aesthetic function of the presence of moral absolutes has more to do with increasing a film's moral conflicts and dramatic tensions. Such a narrative structure, does not, in and of itself automatically yield an audience’s easy confirmation of one absolute over the other, as anti-sentimentalists have postulated.

It is interesting to note, however, that the film ends with a symbolic affirmation of Bess' wish for the church bell to ring. After Bess' trial, in which church elders determine the cause of Bess' death and decide to condemn her at her funeral, we see Jan in attendance, miraculously walking again with the help of crutches. Jan and his friend switch Bess' body with a bag of sand to avoid her condemnation and instead bury her at sea. The film’s closing shot of imaginary church bells ringing in the sky renders the film unrealistic since there are no church bells and, even if there were, the church elders would not allow them to be rung. But such an ending is all the more powerful, reminding us of an early scene in which Bess complains about the church's rigidity because it forbids the ringing of bells.

Bess’ corpse is dumped into the sea.

The church bell, a symbolic affirmation of the good

Selma in Dancer in the Dark, like Bess, is also emblematic of von Trier’s innocent and suffering female heroines. The film depicts a sacrificial mother, who is slowly losing her sight. Working at a factory, Selma saves money for her son’s surgery, as he will go blind just like her unless he gets an operation by a certain age. The suffering woman, a recurring type in other films directed by von Trier, is excessively sentimentalized to evoke sympathy from the viewer. This character type is also significantly archaic. In general, Dancer in the Dark pays homage to genres no longer prominent in contemporary Hollywood cinema — in particular, family melodramas and musicals. The film oscillates between Selma's devastating plight and her imaginary reconciliations, manifested in musical numbers, so that Selma’s fantasies are bracketed as such with the help of switches in genre style and Björk’s otherworldly singing voice.

However, if Breaking the Waves confirms the moral ideals represented by Bess at the end, Dancer in the Dark oscillates throughout between Selma's sentimental fantasies and her real-life situation, with the latter finally abolishing the former. Throughout the film, the musical numbers are clearly framed as Selma’s fantasies, in which Selma experiences moments of happiness giving her strength and a reason to live. In one of Selma’s fantasies, set in the factory where she works, her dull-colored clothes and surroundings become vivid and beautiful, and clunky noises of machinery become rhythmic beats to which one can sing and dance. In her fantasies, narrative conflicts can easily be resolved. When Selma’s potential suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare) discovers that Selma has lost her sight completely, Selma declares, in a superb sequence on the train tracks, that it does not matter since she has seen it all. Similarly, in the musical number that follows Selma’s coerced shooting of her neighbor Bill, she dances with the resurrected victim and is forgiven by him. However, the film poignantly makes it clear that her fantasies have only so much power over the reality of the diegetic world. Ultimately, her fantasies are brutally crushed by that reality, as the last scene has Selma’s singing at the execution chamber abruptly silenced mid-verse when she is hanged and killed.

I found it interesting to observe student reactions to Dancer in the Dark, many of whom admire Selma as much as they are frustrated by her stubbornness. In contrast to Selma, Bess' mental instability suggests that her actions are involuntary, which helps the audience to come to terms with her behavior. However, Selma makes a conscious decision to sacrifice herself in exchange for saving her son’s eyesight and refuses help from her friends. Despite the fact that Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are similarly sentimental due to the way that narrative conflict arises within a dualistic moral structure, character engagement in each film plays out differently.

Some may point out that I have only drawn examples from so-called “art cinema,” which tends to be more self-conscious in its treatment of sentimentality. However, the fact that these films are self-reflexive does not erase the ways that they are indeed sentimental in terms of their extreme moral structure. As I pointed, popular TV drama series such as The Simpsons and soap operas are also self-reflexive to a certain extent in the sense that the viewer is aware of their fictive nature and rarity. This is a matter of degree rather than of kind.

In this essay, I have examined some of the criticisms of sentimental art as cognitively, morally and aesthetically defective. I claim that the epistemic defect attributed to the sentimental mode seems to be dubious, particularly when we turn our attention to artistic sentimentality in extreme cinema, where viewers choose to engage with a sentimental portrayal with full awareness of the film’s extreme structure. If sentimental artworks have an obvious moral message — which, in the eyes of many, decreases both moral as well as aesthetic value — such obviousness is in fact open to aesthetic experimentation. In particular, varieties of such aesthetic experimentation can be found in Audition and the two films by von Trier.

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