Blessed with an exceptional performance by Emily Watson, von Trier’s complex if disturbing take on religion and sex asks of us to have faith in his vision.
Dir. Lars von Trier
1996 | Denmark/UK | Drama | 159 mins | 2.35:1 | English
R21 (passed clean) for strong graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some violence
Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge
Plot: Oilman Jan is paralysed in an accident. His wife, who prayed for his return, feels guilty; even more, when Jan urges her to have sex with another.
Awards: Won Grand Jury Prize (Cannes). Nom. for Best Leading Actress (Oscars)
International Sales: TrustNordisk
Subject Matter: Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published 14 Aug 2017)
Breaking the Waves comes with high if controversial reputation. It is not just a towering achievement in Lars von Trier’s career—as far as critics are concerned, but a film that has continually challenged both its defenders and deriders.
It is certainly a mammoth film, an epic yet intimate drama that runs 20 minutes shy of three hours. Packing an emotional wallop and the kind of cinematic experience that would drain you completely, Breaking the Waves is an exhausting work to take in.
Despite its grandeur and beauty, and in spite of its disturbing subject matter, the film is, if nothing else, a picture that asks of us to have faith in the auteur’s vision, no matter how trying. If I sound like I didn’t like the film, that’s only a half-truth.
“We do not need bells in our church to worship God.”
There’s a lot to admire and like, the most apparent of which is Emily Watson’s exceptional performance, one of the greatest performances by an actress from the ‘90s. It is incredible to learn that it is her acting debut in a feature film.
She plays Bess, a simple-minded woman whose childish antics occasionally frustrate her family and community. Her sister, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), is the most sympathetic of the lot, who takes pains to care for her.
In the film, Bess marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard in a star-making performance, and who would further affirm himself with 1997’s Insomnia), an oil rig worker, who becomes paralysed from the neck down after an accident.
What transpires through von Trier’s film of nine chapters, including prologue and epilogue, is Bess’ devoted love for Jan, however simplistic or straightforward the narrative flow seems to suggest. Breaking the Waves is, of course, far from that. It is a complex take on religion and sex through the conduit of unconditional love.
Bess speaks to God, or so she thinks and wholly believes (scenes of this role-playing, of Bess assuming God, and herself responding to Him are peppered throughout the film, though they could sometimes be too repetitive and didactic for their own good). But the Church, in its puritanical glory, doesn’t think she is a good person. To which von Trier asks: what is goodness anyway?
Was #6 on Martin Scorsese ‘s list of the Best Films of 1990s.
Shot by Robert Muller (Wim Wenders’ and Jim Jarmusch’s acclaimed cinematographer) on 35mm, Breaking the Waves is no doubt pretty to look at, though beneath the visuals lie a heightened sense of reality.
Its capture of realism does allude to the Dogme 95 manifesto (a movement spearheaded by von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg around that time), but only in spirit, a point made by David Sterritt in his article “Breaking the Waves: Breaking the Rules”.
Ultimately, the sheer breadth, and occasionally, depth, of Breaking the Waves, its shocking and explicit scenes notwithstanding, is meant to be a build-up to the epilogue, best described as transcendental. Some might call it spiritual. But why invoke religiosity when it is the faith in religion that is under most duress?