copyright 2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 50, spring 2008

Sentimentality and the cinema of the extreme

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."[1][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. [2] Sentimentality is still — often pejoratively — associated with excessive, self-indulgent emotions directed at an object of innocence and purity[3] , 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 .[4] 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.”[5] 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,

“What distinguishes the sentimental fantasy from the other types of fantasies is its tendency to idealize its objects, to present them as pure, noble, heroic, vulnerable, [and] innocent” (my italics).[6]

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,

“idealizes its object under the guidance of a desire for gratification and reassurance.”[7]

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,

“the central offense lies in self-deception, in distorting reality to get a pretext for indulging in any feeling” (my italics).[8]

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.”[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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,

“sentimental idealizations prettify life in deceptive ways not found in legitimate idealizations.”[12]

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 contrast to sentimentalized ideals, realistic renderings disclose the difficulty of pursuing ideals and require effort to be appreciated. Thought and self-reflection are needed to understand and value the ideal of work achieved by Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.”[13]

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 qualities that sentimentality imposes on its objects are the qualities of innocence. But this almost inevitably involves a gross simplification of the nature of the object.”[14]

The idealization involved in sentimentality, agrees Kupfer, “is not simple, but simplistic.” He continues,

“Because sentimental ideals are simplistic and easily apprehended, our emotional responses to them are thin. We are comforted by these responses, reassured in our familiar reactions, understanding and expectation.”[15]

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.

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] 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.

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.

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.


1. Murray Smith, "Lars von Trier: Sentimental Surrealist," 119.

2. Mark Jefferson, “What is Wrong with Sentimentality?” 519.

3. Robert C. Solomon, “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” 2.

4. Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s.

5. Anthony Savile, The Test of Time, 237.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 241.

8. Mary Midgley, "Brutality and Sentimentality," 385.

9. Jefferson, "What is Wrong with Sentimentality?" 528.

10. Ibid., 527.

11. Jinhee Choi, “All the Right Responses: Fiction Film and Warranted Emotions.”

12. Joseph Kupfer, "The Sentimental Self," 547.

13. Ibid.

14. Jefferson, "What is Wrong With Sentimentaltiy," 527.

15. Kupfer , "The Sentimental Self," 546.

16. Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neo-formalist Film Analysis, 197-217.

17. Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema, 197-207.

18. Smith discusses an aesthetic merit of Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) in a similar way. He claims that the aesthetic virtue of the film, unlike many who attempt to assess in terms of thematic ambiguity or semantic equivocation, should be found in the formal dynamism interacting with the straightforward political message. See his Engaging Characters, 202.

19. Ed S.H. Tan and Nico H. Frida, "Sentiment in Film Viewing," 48-64.

20. Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films, 18-22.

Works cited

Choi, Jinhee, "All the Right Responses: Fiction Films and Warranted Emotions," British Journal of Aesthetics 43/3 (2003), 308-321.

Chow, Rey. Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)

Doane, Mary Ann.  The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

Elley, Derek. "Dancer in the Dark," Variety May 22, 2000.

Feagin, Susan.  Reading With Feeling: The Aesthetic of Appreciation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).

Jefferson, Mark. “What is Wrong with Sentimentality?” Mind 92 (1983), 519-529.

Knight, Deborah. "Why We Enjoy Condemning Sentimentality: A Meta-Aesthetic Perspective,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 57/4 (1999), 411-420.

Kupfer, Joseph. "The Sentimental Self," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26/4 (1996), 543-560.

Midgley, Mary. "Brutality and Sentimentality," Philosophy 54 (1979), 385-289.

Newman, Ira. "The Alleged Unwholesomeness of Sentimentality," in Arguing about Art, 2nd edition, (eds.) Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley (London: Routledge, 2002), 320-331

Savile, Anthony.  The Test of Time (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982).

Smith,Murray.  Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995).

________. "Lars von Trier: Sentimental Surrealist," in Purity and Provocation: Dogma 95, (eds.) Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (London: British Film Institute, 2003), 111-121.

Solomon, Robert C.. "On Kitsch and Sentimentality," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49:1 (Winter 1991), 1–14.

________. "In Defense of Sentimentality," Philosophy of Literature 14 (1990), 304-323, Reprinted In Defense of Sentimentality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 3-19. 

Tan, Ed S.H. and Nico H. Frida, ‘Sentiment in Film Viewing," in Passionate Views (eds.) Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1999), 48-64. 

Tanner, Michael. "Sentimentality," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1977, 127-147.

Thompson, Kristin. Breaking the Glass Armor: Neo-formalist Film Analysis (Princeton: Princeton U.P, 1988).

To topJC 50 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.