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Love and redemption

Breaking the Waves Lars Von Trier (18) The Blue Villa Alain Robbe- Grillet (18) By Adam Mars-Jones
Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes this year, is an astonishing film, so well thought-out and passionately executed that it's only afterwards, if then, that audiences will wonder exactly what they have been persuaded to think and feel.

The film is stylised as far as the camera is concerned, but intensely naturalistic in the realm of its performances. Each section starts with a sort of moving postcard, a landscape from the Scottish Islands progressively overlaid with gorgeous retouched colour, and accompanied by a naff pop classic of the Sixties or Seventies - Mott The Hoople or T Rex. The action, though, is filmed in a skittering hand-held style that almost makes it resemble the current generation of American cop shows, except that it is shot in the creamy browns of an advertisement for stout.

The film's heroine, Bess, has been brought up in the Outer Hebrides in a religion that so discriminates against joy that it makes the Wee Frees look like suburban swingers (women may not speak in kirk, for instance, nor attend funerals). She married Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), who works on an oil rig, despite a gap in age and experience, not to mention her family's dour doubts.

Emily Watson, in her film debut, gives an utterly fearless performance. Von Trier favours close-ups - not Bergman-style framed essences of face, but dynamic shots, shots of emotional action at close range - and Watson always delivers. The director sometimes has her look directly at the camera at the end of a scene, but, though this breaks the conventions, it doesn't break the spell. Watson holds her own with Katrin Cartlidge, who plays Bess's widowed sister-in-law, and who, 10 minutes into the film, making a speech at the wedding, unleashes a flood of emotion that most films would take a couple of hours to work up to.

Bess is never less than spontaneous, while the gloomy devotees around her - even her mother - flinch at the proximity of happiness. She sticks her tongue out at Jan as she walks down the aisle (no organ, of course, no bells). She may be a virgin, but that doesn't mean she's patient: the marriage is consumated, knee-tremblingly, in the ladies' toilet before the reception is even over. Bess frowns when Jan plays with her nipple, not disapproving, just baffled at first. Later on, in a passionate phone call to Jan on the rig, she scandalises herself by saying "prick" out loud.

What is brewing is no mere conflict between repression and expression, nor even between a religion of the word and one of the spirit. Bess herself is highly religious, having two-sided conversations with God in which he warns her that "I giveth and I taketh away".

At this point, Von Trier borrows a device from WW Jacob's famous ghost story The Monkey's Paw and has her pray to have Jan come home from the oil rig, without stipulating in what way, or in what condition. God grants her wish, while also testing and punishing her.

The God of the community is a cruel one, hers is a loving one. The boldness of the screenplay lies in its not dramatising the differences, but showing that the two are the same. God is cruel in his love, loving in his cruelty. With its themes of doubt and faith, love and redemption and church bells, Breaking the Waves is firmly in Tarkovsky country, but when Bess starts having sex with strangers, purely to keep Jan happy, it can hardly remain in that holy region. As Bess borrows fishnets and hot-pants to perfect her hooker look, and starts seeking more and more degrading sexual experiences, all in the name of spiritual monogamy, Von Trier strikes an incongruous Bunuel note. It should give some indication of the film's uniqueness that it is exactly equidistant from both Andrei Rublev and Belle de Jour, equally free of Tarkovsky's solemnity and Bunuel's sly humour.

Von Trier's camera - or Robby Muller's, since he was director of photography - seems at home wherever it goes, whether in kirk, hospital or oil rig; the director's dazzling assurance carries the film along. The editing shows great economy within an expansive structure. At the same time, all sorts of dodgy propositions are kept well out of sight. Bess is presented as purely good, at the cost of making her seem a child, or else mentally ill. How long would Jan find it endearing, really, that she gazes at Lassie films open-mouthed, that when she takes communion, she doesn't merely glow, she grins. When she has just undertaken a sexual penance that has made her vomit, she catches sight of a rabbit, and seconds later she is twitching her nose in imitation of it.

When Emily Watson isn't on camera, the doubts begin about this paean to faith in love. We wonder how Bess and Jan could ever have met, let alone fallen for each other. Von Trier uses the figure of a sympathetic doctor, attracted to Bess and appalled by her innocence in roughly equally degrees, to follow her martyrdom at a distance and be converted by it, but this narrative device is ineffective without Watson's presence. It's unnerving that a director with so much originality and flair should fall back on portraying goodness as a sort of virginity of the soul, a benign blankness of mind.

Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Blue Villa starts with a song that could apply also to Breaking the Waves: "To the pale man the day may come of his redemption, if he finds a love who unto death remains true." The films share, too, the sea, supreme symbol of opposites, permanence and mutability, though the sea in The Blue Villa is a dazzling blue of welcome. For Robbe-Grillet, though, the themes of redemption of obsession are only games like any other.

The Blue Villa shows the old master charlatan up to his old tricks. We have a writer trying to construct a thriller plot, working out permutations of images and events until the fiction starts to swallow him up. We have Fred Ward as a sort of Flying Dutchman figure, returning to a Mediterranean island exactly a year after his supposed death, to solve the mystery, make atonement or take revenge. We have a symbolic game (in this case, mah-jong): at one point all four players are replaced in turn, but the game goes on.

The settings and images of the film are very beautiful, as if in his heart of hearts, or mind of minds, the director knew that he had to compensate with visual pleasure for showing us yet another set of enigmatic interlocking narratives, precisely straddling the border between interest and boredom. A man who calls in a crack team of designers to redecorate his labyrinth has perhaps lost confidence in the fascination its structure will exert on visitorsn Both films are released tomorrow