A paralysed oil rig worker urges his wife to engage in sexual encounters with strangers.
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's work has been distinctive for his sardonic outlook and his gimmicky preoccupation with arty technique. This, his English language debut, which won the 1996 Jury Prize at Cannes, arouses more emotion. You'll leave weeping or arguing, but certainly not bored by a tale that ranges between the weird, the wonderful and outrageous.
Despite the pursed lips of relations and church elders in a remote Scottish village in the 1970s, devout, innocent young Bess (Watson) marries oil rig worker Jan (Skarsgard). The austerity of her environment is contrasted sharply with Bess's warmth, affection, and the rapture she finds in sex with her Scandinavian husband. Then we realise the reason for everyone's concern; Bess is a sweet, happy girl but definitely not right in the head. She is unable to bear separation from Jan, and when he is brought back from the rig paralysed after an accident, her obsession adds to his despair. They arrive at a bizarre arrangement; he urges her to take a lover, she interprets this as a spiritual mission.
The development of their bond from misunderstanding to tragic, twisted sacrifice is, frankly, creepy and infuriating. Bess's conversations with God, especially, resemble a clumsy Exorcist spoof, and one is tempted to side with the contingent who reckon she should be in a padded cell. The perverse convolutions of the second hour are also particularly hard going. It's here that credulity and patience become strained to breaking point. But von Trier is intent on the miraculousness inherent in love and faith, and miracles are duly provided in a daring and exalting send-off - repayment with interest for the ordeal by which it has been obtained.
As frustrating as it is rewarding, this makes compulsive viewing nonetheless.