Breaking the Waves: Bess waits for the groom to arrive.
Breaking the Waves: Bess prays to God to send Jan home.
Breaking the Waves: Jan becomes paralyzed due to an accident on the oil-rig.
Breaking the Waves: Bess prostitutes herself to save Jan’s life.
Dancer in the Dark: Selma, another suffering heroine
Audition: Asami amputates Aoyama’s left foot.
Oldboy: Dae-su at the police station
Oldboy: Dae-su is abducted and imprisoned for 15 years.
Oldboy: Dae-su sacrifices himself in order to protect his daughter.
Oldboy: Dae-su with his daughter Mido after his memory is erased.
Images from Audition
Aoyama and his friend audition the candidates.
Asami, the perfect candidate.
Asami at the audition.
Despite his friend’s warning, Aoyama courts Asami.
Aoyama and Asami’s romantic getaway.
Aoyama learns about Asami’s painful past.
Aoyama wakes up to find Asami gone.
During Aoyama’s visit to Asami’s hometown, he runs into her stepfather…
…whose feet are amputated.
Aoyama visits the bar where Asami used to work.
The owner of the bar was murdered, with an extra tongue found on the floor.
by Jinhee Choi
The everyday viewer might be baffled by the current resurgence of sentimentality in the contemporary melodramas of Lars von Trier in films such as Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). Trier's unpolished, roughly textured visuals might be viewed as "realistic," but this "realistic" style is seemingly at odds with the films' highly contrived or "unrealistic" stories of self-sacrificing heroines. Murray Smith characterizes von Trier as a "sentimental surrealist," who appeals to "the innocent" and "pre-socialized," despite his commitment to the Dogma 95 manifesto according to which cinema should be made in the service of "truth."[open endnotes in new window]
In Breaking the Waves, for instance, the newlywed Bess (Emily Watson) forces herself into sexual relationships with other men upon the request of her husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), who has become paralyzed from an oil drilling accident. Bess' actions are in part motivated by her guilt over Jan's condition, since she believes that his accident was God's punishing answer to her prayers to send Jan home to her from the oil rig. She believes that her sacrifice of continuing sexual relations with strangers will somehow save Jan's life. Bess' characteristics of childlike radiance, innocence, simple-minded devotion, and stubbornness is in keeping with von Trier's female protagonists, and these same characteristics indeed apply to Selma (Björk) in Dancer in the Dark.
Ever since the notion of sentimentality acquired pejorative connotations in the 18th Century, in terms of both aesthetic and moral condemnation, the issue of sentimentality has undergone a radical transformation within the history of aesthetics.  Sentimentality is still — often pejoratively — associated with excessive, self-indulgent emotions directed at an object of innocence and purity , and von Trier's female protagonists certainly serve as contemporary examples. However, this approach to sentimentality in narrative, either as a type or as a prevailing mood, results in thinking critically only about a subset of the phenomenon in question. A better way to address the issue of sentimentality as manifest in cinema would be to think of sentimentality as an aesthetic strategy that can be employed to evoke strong emotional resonances through presenting idealized characters facing moral dilemmas within a narrative that posits a dualistic moral structure.
If cinematic sentimentality, as I hope to argue, can be characterized as a mode in which a dualistic moral system motivates character actions toward the extreme, then sentimentality has also been associated with another genre, not usually seen as melodrama but rather as horror, in particular, the so-called cinema of the extreme. This subgenre includes such films as Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999) and Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003), which involve graphic violence, extensive gore, and overt stylization.
Audition features a female protagonist Asami (Shiina Eihi), who appears to be an ideal candidate for the perfect housewife, at least to the character Aoyama (Ishibashi Ryo), but she turns into a demonic figure later in the film, piercing his body with acupuncture needles and amputating his left foot.
In Oldboy, which pairs an incestuous father-daughter relationship with an incestuous brother-sister relationship, the viewer witnesses the radical transformation of the protagonist Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) from womanizer, to cruel avenger, and finally to sacrificial father. Dae-su's quest for vengeance over his mysterious fifteen-year imprisonment is in fact ultimately directed against himself once he learns that a callous remark during his high school days led the sister of his antagonist to commit suicide, not to mention that he has been hypnotized to be romantically involved with his own daughter.
Because of their use in widely varying genres, these two contemporary trends in cinematic sentimentality appear to pull the viewer in opposite emotional directions and attract different kinds of audiences. Yet, there exists an affinity between the two in the way that they are designed to evoke heightened emotions by featuring protagonists caught between irreconcilably opposing moral values. Despite various attempts to revive critical interest in sentimentality over the past two decades, within the fields of both philosophy and film studies, critics still have a lingering hesitancy to acknowledge sentimentality as aesthetically worthy.
Philosophers still have difficulty dissociating artistic sentimentality from sentimentality per se. This may be in part the analytic tradition has never developed particularly thorough philosophical defenses of sentimentality. Film studies has considered sentimentality more aesthetically permissible — even politically subversive, albeit in certain genres. In particular, feminist scholars have defended the family melodrama of the 1940s and 50s, a genre often accused of fostering sentimentality, by pointing out the fact that the excessive emotional overtones associated with the genre should be viewed as an acknowledgment, however limited, of the domestic sphere and repressed female sexuality . Nevertheless, this kind of criticism usually values sentimentality for its ideological function instead of appreciating it in and of itself.
By drawing on the philosophical literature on sentimentality, I hope to outline a sentimental "mode" that is shared between sentimentality and the brutality manifest in extreme cinema, a seemingly incongruous pairing. I first discuss some of the most influential philosophical critiques of sentimentality as advanced by Anthony Savile, Mary Midgley, Mark Jefferson, and Joseph Kupfer. These writers consider sentimentality as a "mode" of emotional response rather than a particular "type" of emotion. Next, I examine how most aesthetic devaluations of artistic sentimentality have drawn on alleged epistemic defects of sentimentality. Finally, I assess the function of sentimentality and brutality as represented in works that are part of the recent trend of extreme cinema. I conclude that such a representation does not automatically degrade a work's aesthetic value but rather that the extreme moral codes manifest in these works can become objects of aesthetic experimentation and appreciation.
A sentimental mode
Sentimentality is often associated with "tender" and "soft" emotions directed toward an object of innocence, for example, the warmth evoked at the sight of children or puppies at play. However, instead of considering sentimentality a type of emotion, Anthony Savile and others have construed it as a mode and approached it relationally. For them, "mode" refers to the way emotions are experienced in both everyday circumstances and art, so that to examine sentimentality as such sheds light on how to apply concepts of the "sentimental" to art. This, however, leaves the burden of proof on me as to how artistic sentimentality can do away with the criticisms of the sentimental mode. I will deal with these criticisms in depth later.
According to Savile, “sentimentality is properly seen as a mode of feeling or thought, not as a feeling of a particular kind.” Gentle emotions such as compassion, pity, and sadness are not inherently sentimental, but they become such when they are the outcome of sentimentalizing activity. Savile describes sentimentalizing as a process of projecting moral ideals in one’s imagination. He writes,
When I pick up the phone to donate money for the underprivileged after watching a television advertisement with puppy-eyed children, I may become sentimental by seeing them as innocent children and exaggerating their condition worse than they actually are. Savile compares sentimental idealization with other types of unjustified imaginary projections. For example, in studying the philosophy of Kant and Wittgenstein, one may construe it as intellectual fraud or empty babble, projecting one’s frustration and lack of understanding onto the authors’ work. This might be a process similar to that of sentimentalizing, in that both attempt to guard self-esteem. But the projection of one’s frustrations onto these philosophers involves neither the “idealization” of the authors nor their philosophies, quite in opposition to the case of the sentimental. On the other hand, my imagination of underprivileged children aims at thinking of them as virtuous. The outcome of such a projection, is in turn redirected to myself: self-assurance of my righteousness. The sentimental mode, Savile concludes,
If, as Savile points out, sentimentality is indeed a mode not a type, sentimentality is not limited to tender and sweet emotions. Mary Midgley notes that thrillers are on the par with sentimental novels in distorting reality, but the former indulges in different types of emotions — toughness and ruthlessness — that are not the types of emotions normally associated with sentimentality. Midgley underlines the shared characteristics between sentimentality and brutality by claiming,
If so, for Midgley, any type of emotion can be experienced in a sentimental manner.
Neither Savile nor Midgely draws a firm distinction between responsive and artistic sentimentality within their discussions and instead oscillate between the two. However, one can tease out aesthetic corollaries once given the characteristics of the sentimentalizing process.
Like Midgley, Jefferson recognizes the link between sentimentality and brutality; a sentimental artwork often relies on the binary opposition of moral values in order to foreground the good. Jefferson draws on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, in which Miss Quested, who symbolizes for the European colonizers “the purity, bravery, and vulnerability of English womanhood,” is juxtaposed against Dr. Aziz, young Indian doctor who symbolizes for the colonizers “a lust-ridden and perfidious people.” The valorization of the moral ideal is predicated upon the vilification of the other, with the result of removing any moral ambiguity in the work. Jefferson does not discuss in detail what kind of impact such a representation would have on the reader but rather delineates the fact that sentimental representation of moral virtue often hinges upon the vilification of the other. But as I will argue, such a dualistic moral framework represented in a work can provide an occasion for the reader to critique and reflect upon the outcome of the sentimentalizing process.
One can begin to see how each characteristic of the sentimental mode determines the definitive aesthetic function of sentimental art, which is the evocation of emotions via the representation of a moral ideal in a direct, non-ambiguous manner. A character that embodies a moral ideal is made the object of the audience’s attention and emotional engagement. The moral struggles and sufferings of this character arise from an irreconcilably dualistic moral system and increase the viewer’s intense affective engagements with him or her.
So far, I have attempted to describe the moral and aesthetic aspects of artistic sentimentality in a value-neutral, non-circular way. One must distinguish, however, the emotional response intended by a sentimental artwork from responsive sentimentality, which is dislocated from its original object and is redirected toward the subject. The former can be warranted by the artwork, while the latter is not. If the function of a sentimental work is to bring about a "strong" or "heightened" emotional response through the depiction of moral ideals in extraordinary circumstances, one’s corresponding response to the work is appropriate as long as it secures the proper causal relation with, and is directed at, the work. Once the object of one’s response shifts from the work to oneself, the response no longer is directed at the work and thus not justifiable in aesthetic terms, however understandable that response might be. I have argued elsewhere about the ways in which emotional responses to fiction can be warranted in light of the functions of an artwork, but my aim here is to discuss the aesthetic value of sentimental work.
Before I discuss why artistic sentimentality deserves aesthetic consideration, I should first turn to cognitive and moral criticisms of artistic sentimentality. In their discussions of sentimental idealization, both Savile and Midgley emphasize how the attitude involved in a sentimental response is cognitively flawed. In this instance, a sentimental person voluntarily "misrepresents" or "misappropriates" or "distorts" the cues available in her environment in order to indulge certain emotions for their own sake.
The consumption of sentimental art, then, puts the audience in a position to experience strong emotion, and it is the filmmaker’s job to bring about such a response in the audience. A sentimental artwork provides the object of the audience’s affective engagement: idealized moral characters struggling through conflicts and dilemmas within an absolute moral system. But to what extent is such a representation cognitively flawed? To what extent is sentimental art untrue, unfaithful to the world?
While distinguishing sentimental idealization from "realistic" idealization, Joseph Kupfer asserts,
He sets up a contrast by discussing the character Levin from Anna Karenina, who finds a rare moment of harmony with nature through physical labor. Importantly, the novel never presents the moment as through it will remove all the other complications in his life. As Kupfer writes:
In opposition to this kind of depiction, sentimental art is "unrealistic" by virtue of the fact that the moral ideals are too easily affirmed, or that such a narrative outcome violates our conception of the world. In a similar way, sentimental art is also criticized on both moral and aesthetic grounds. According to Jefferson,
The idealization involved in sentimentality, agrees Kupfer, “is not simple, but simplistic.” He continues,
Simplification, however, seems to be differently construed here in Kupfer’s and Jefferson’s criticisms. Jefferson views it as an epistemological as well as moral defect, which impairs the moral, comprehensive understanding of the world, whereas for Kupfer, simplicity is an aesthetic defect — it is formulaic, predictable and clichéd. Kupfer appears to equate simplicity with crudity, in opposition to complexity and emotional depth, rather than consider it an aesthetic merit, a feature that contributes to the unity of the work.
Although Jefferson and Kupfer’s criticisms are distinct, they are interrelated. Sentimental art does not provide a comprehensive understanding of the world due to its moral idealization and simplification, nor does it promote profound emotional responses. This suggests that the capacity of art to evoke emotional responses is aesthetically worthy only if these emotional responses broaden and deepen our understanding of the world. This assumes that a cognitive merit can be an aesthetic merit, something I do not wish to dispute here. Instead, I want to suggest that sentimental art can contribute to our understanding of the world by inviting the viewer to imagine the possible, if not plausible, situation in which characters endure hardships. Moreover, I want to suggest that even if we accept that sentimentality is a cognitive flaw, sentimental art, by virtue of its sentimentality, can still have aesthetic value. I will discuss each point in turn.
As we have seen, Kupfer criticizes sentimental fiction for its easy resolution of conflicts and implausible narrative outcomes. The cinema of the extreme evokes a heightened response by portraying characters in extraordinary circumstances with extraordinary courage and virtue. Imaginative engagement with such an implausible portrayal may not deepen our understanding of how the world actually functions, but it certainly might broaden our understanding of what is possible, however implausible. Kupfer may be more concerned with sentimental art's social and political functions — that such works conceal conflicts in the real world and mislead audiences to form unjustified beliefs about the real world. But any filmmaker in telling a story makes selections and omissions in order to make certain aspects of a character or situation more salient. This does not imply that such a selection necessarily leads the audience to form false beliefs about the world.