Breaking the Waves (1996)
Dir. Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge
Breaking the Waves is one of the films in my collection that I have watched the least. I picked the film up on Bluray a few years ago during one of Barnes and Nobles’s periodic half price Criterion Collection sales. I have been following the career of Lars von Trier since seeing Dancer in the Dark shortly after it was released, but to that point I had never seen Breaking the Waves, one of his most celebrated films, so I decided to take a chance on the purchase. I watched the movie shortly after buying it, and I was very impressed by its emotionally affective morality fable, and by Emily Watson’s heartbreaking performance as Bess, a naïve young woman who sacrifices everything in an attempt to please and heal her ailing husband. Since that initial viewing, I have only watched Breaking the Waves one other time before watching it for this project, simply because, like many of von Trier’s films, it is an incredibly difficult watch. The film’s beauty and artistic merit are without question, but its subject matter and emotional brutality make for an uncomfortable viewing experience.
Set in a small village on the northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s, Breaking the Waves begins with the wedding of Bess (Watson) and Jan (Skarsgård). The Calvinist elders of the village don’t approve of this marriage as they are distrustful of outsiders, and Jan, a Scandinavian who has come to their village to work on an oil rig, is certainly an outsider. The tall, hard-drinking Jan, and Bess, who is devoutly religious and meek, make for an odd couple, but their marriage seems genuinely happy. Bess matches her religious devotion with a new-found devotion to her husband, and begins to find herself in a new context through Jan’s introduction of a previously forbidden sexuality into her life. When their honeymoon phase comes to an end and Jan has to go back to work on the rig, Bess comforts herself in prayer, giving voice to her own wants and concerns as well as God’s responses. While at sea, Jan suffers a head injury and is returned to Bess immobilized and confined to a hospital bed. Possessing of a childlike faith, Bess believes that her prayers for Jan’s early return from the oil rig are the cause of his injury, and, feeling guilty, she seeks a way that she might be able to heal him. Bess also begins to believe that she and Jan have a metaphysical connection, through both action and prayer. Jan suggests that Bess take another lover and then describe their sexual encounters to him, telling her that if she does this, it will help him to get better. Bess secretly begins prostituting herself, hoping in vain that through her debasement, the man she loves will be healed. Though her friends and family, including her sister-in-law (Cartlidge) who is also Jan’s nurse, caution her against her actions, insisting that she is being used by Jan, Bess persists, hoping that she can bring about a miracle.
Von Trier often groups his films into sets and trilogies, and Breaking the Waves is the first film in what he calls his “Golden Heart” trilogy. It is followed by The Idiots, which I haven’t seen, and Dancer in the Dark, which I will be writing about for this project in time. These films are all influenced by a fairytale that von Trier read as a child in which a little girl is lost in the woods and gives away everything she owns to those who are needier than she is, and they all explore themes of exploitation, martyrdom, and absolution. Though he experienced critical success throughout Europe from the beginning of his career, Breaking the Waves marks von Trier’s first crossover success, with the film receiving near-unanimous praise from critics, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as garnering an Academy Award nomination for its star. The film also marks the genesis of the criticism of von Trier for perceived misogyny and exploitation of his female leads. Though von Trier has countered these criticisms, claiming that his female protagonists are representations of his own feminine side, there is certainly an argument to be made that the female protagonists of von Trier’s films are unfairly and sadistically treated, particularly in the “Golden Heart” trilogy. I’m not sure exactly whether I think that von Trier is a sadist or a misogynist, or if he is simply interested in documenting some of the baser, crueler aspects of human relations as a reflection of his own mental anguish. Watching his films often makes me uncomfortable, which is absolutely his intention as a filmmaker. He has often stated that his intention is to create films that are a “stone in your shoe,” that are provocative in both style and subject matter, and that lead the audience to consider positions or truths that may be unsettling. Breaking the Waves is certainly successful in this respect, and as uncomfortable as it might be to watch, it is often a beautiful and profound film.
Arriving just over a year after von Trier’s announcement of the Dogme 95 manifesto, a set of rules announcing a new experimental cinema movement that aimed to return filmmaking to a focus on core values of story, performance, and theme, Breaking the Waves shares many stylistic similarities to later Dogme films, but it is not considered a true Dogme film. One goal of Dogme filmmaking was to better connect with the audience by stripping away the artifice of special effects and slick post-production, and though he doesn’t strictly adhere to the filmmaking tenets laid out in the manifesto in Breaking the Waves, the desired effect of audience engagement and delivery of cinematic truth is achieved through von Trier’s beginning to experiment with a more minimalist and naturalistic style. The film was shot entirely with handheld cameras, with von Trier often framing his leads in extreme close ups. The audience is granted an unusual intimacy to Bess and Jan, with von Trier explicitly and frankly filming them having sex, lying in bed, dancing. The camera engages in a sort of dance, as well, with the freedom of movement provided by handheld allowing von Trier to film his subjects from unusual angles. In post-production, von Trier chose to transfer the images from film to video and back to film again, resulting in a slightly grainy, occasionally out of focus image that is reminiscent of a home movie. Although both of these unusual stylistic choices could be seen as disruptive or distracting, used for their distancing effect on the audience, I think that they enhance my own personal identification with the film and the characters, as well as lending the film a sort of cinéma-vérité quality. Sometimes devout realism can rob a film of some of its emotional impact, but in this case I think it helps to create poignancy.
Of course the real emotional engine of the film is Watson in her performance as Bess. The film requires her to portray the full scope of human emotions, from the joy that Bess experiences when she and Jan are first married to the utter anguish that she feels when she realizes she may have been somehow at fault for his accident. Her performance ranges from performative, histrionic fits of despair to quiet moments of prayer and internal reflection. Despite her devotion to Jan, Watson plays Bess as primarily internally focused, and she incorporates subtleties into the character that hint at her mental illness and her stunted emotional development. There are several scenes that feature Bess praying, and in them she utters her prayers out loud and also vocalizes what she believes to be God’s personal responses to her. Watson’s subtle change of inflection in these scenes, a conversation of one, demonstrate the sadly rich internal world that Bess inhabits, and the extreme religious faith to which she clings. Watson’s Bess is a, literal, wide-eyed innocent, von Trier often framing her face in extreme close up and highlighting her eyes, which seem to be constantly searching. As the film progresses, we see more and more pain enter into those eyes as Bess continues to put herself through emotional and physical punishment. The performance was lauded by critics and Watson earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Astonishingly, Breaking the Waves was her debut feature but she carries the film entirely, imbuing her character with heartbreaking pathos.
Although it is a bleak film, Breaking the Waves isn’t an entirely grim affair. It does have moments of levity and some astonishingly beautiful compositions. The film’s opening scenes at Bess and Jan’s wedding begin the film on a light hearted note. There is music and dancing, and despite the misgivings of Bess’s family and the village Elders, everyone generally seems happy for her. The cultural differences between Jan’s coworkers and the chaste villagers is largely played for laughs, although there is a sinister undertone to an exchange between Jan’s friend, Terry (Jean-Marc Barr), and Bess’s grandfather (Phil McCall), in which the latter smashes a glass with his bare hand in response to the former crushing his beer can in an aggressive manner. Largely, though, the scene sets up what will be a fairly quaint setting for the beginning of the film, before Jan’s accident triggers the film’s darker portions. Von Trier’s film depicts the Scottish countryside as rugged and cold, but beautiful, and the intertitle shots that introduce the seven chapters that he has chosen to break his film up into are stunning, possessing a painterly aesthetic. These intertitles are jarring, made up of landscapes so vibrant they appear to be tinted, the static long shots are soundtracked by 1970s British rock classics, and they stand in stark contrast with the aesthetic of the rest of the film. Their beauty is almost transcendent and its radical departure from the established visual aesthetic of the film indicates that for von Trier, perhaps, there is little place for traditional beauty in the real world of his film. These intertitles could also be seen as a sort of fantasy informed by the influence of Jan on Bess’s life and mental state, as she quickly mentions music as being one of the noteworthy contributions of outsiders like Jan to life in the village when she is being interrogated by the village Elders prior to her wedding. Even when working somewhat within the framework of a restrictive code of filmic ethics such as Dogme filmmaking, von Trier can’t help but include some of the beautiful, set compositions that would become more prevalent in his post-2000 work.
Von Trier also pulls his punches somewhat by including a quasi-happy ending to the film. While I won’t go into depth on the specifics of the film’s ending, because I think that its final shot is a thing of true beauty and needs to be seen to truly be understood, it does offer some absolution and redemption for Bess. Von Trier’s later films would abandon this sentiment, and often find their heroines left in a much more precarious or pessimistic position at film’s end, but I think that Breaking the Waves is a better film for allowing some light to permeate its darkness. Many seem to think that this film is von Trier’s finest work, but I think that I prefer Dancer in the Dark, perhaps just because I saw it so much earlier in life than I saw Breaking the Waves. Watching it this time, though, I was struck by the film in a way that I hadn’t necessarily been in my first two viewings. It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s bleakness, as its long running time compounds the experience of watching Bess’s prolonged suffering, but the moments of true beauty are certainly there in the film. It’s a more complex film than I had previously realized, and it bears many thematic resemblances to one of my favorite films, Au Hasard Balthazar. Just like that film always does, the ending of Breaking the Waves brought me to tears. Experiencing a Lars von Trier film can be an emotionally exhausting experience, and, to be honest, I don’t know that all of his films are worth the amount of trauma that they can inflict upon a viewer, but Breaking the Waves is a piece of high art. It probably isn’t the best introduction to the cinema of von Trier, but it is a film that’s not to be missed.