Denmark/Sweden/France/Netherlands/Norway/Iceland/Spain | 1996 | Directed by Lars Von Trier
Logline: A naive young newlywed is forced to adjust to adult life within the confines of a strict religious community.
I first saw this movie by myself at the Wellington Film Festival in New Zealand after it was first released. It was the final film of the festival with a festival party scheduled directly after the screening. It was a full house in the Embassy cinema (around 800 people), and during the last fifteen or so minutes I was sobbing. So were the people to left and right of me. In fact I believe most of the audience was in tears.
Straight after the screening I staggered out into the foyer and ordered a straight whiskey from the bar, then wondered around in a daze. Someone asked if I was alright and I replied that I had just seen Breaking The Waves and was an emotional wreck. From memory I didn’t last long at the after party I was too fragile.
I finally watched the movie for a second time a few years ago and it still packs a huge emotional wallop, perhaps not quite the sledgehammer I was anticipating, but then I knew what to expect. Part of the movie’s incredible strength and potency lies in not knowing what happens and with this in mind I am very reluctant to provide any kind of detailed synopsis. Still, half an hour in I turned to my fiancé and said somberly, “This is going to ruin me again.”
It is the mid-70s and Bess McNeil (Emily Watson) is a naïve young woman living in a very strict Calvinist community in northern Scotland. She has met a Danish man, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), who works on an oil rig, and the two of them are married at the beginning of the movie.
Bess’s older sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) looks out for Bess (Dodo has been hardened by the death of her own husband, Bess’s brother), as she knows Bess to be a very impressionable and emotionally vulnerable woman. Some would say Bess is stupid, but her psyche is more complex than that. Bess’s parents are deeply religious and are concerned about her union with an outsider.
Lars Von Trier, who wrote the screenplay, is a true maverick, notable for his experimental Dogma manifesto, he started pushing the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking with this movie. There are many elements in Breaking The Waves which he would use when formulating the Dogma rules; the use of entirely handheld camera (apart from the chapter cards), the extensive use of improvised acting, using only available light, and the reliance on a raw, uncompromising presentation of the narrative.
Von Trier applies a Brechtian approach with the character of Bess frequently breaking the fourth wall (the camera) by gazing into the lens at various moments during the course of the movie. This can be interpreted as Bess’s contact with God, along with her almost “saintly” aura reflecting an inner voice which guides and cajoles her.
Playwright Bertolt Brecht also used tableaux in his plays and Von Trier employs a similar convention with the chapter cards which punctuate the movie. There are eight of these over the course of the two-and-a-half hour film, each one a stunning landscape composition which looks like a painting, until you notice the subtle movements of water, cloud and light. These chapter stops are accompanied by an excerpt of music from the period, each one loaded with passion and melancholy for maximum emotional impact (I remember tears rolling down my cheeks whilst Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and David Bowie’s Life On Mars were used).
Breaking The Waves is a film of devastating power. The themes of love, grief and hope are treated in a most unique and extraordinary way; one long beautiful tragic poem, but presented like a cinematic novel. The performance of Emily Watson is astounding. Quite possibly one of the most brilliantly sustained performances of the past twenty years or more (interesting to note that Helena Bonham Carter was first cast as Bess, but as great an actor as Carter is I doubt she would’ve been able to capture the unbridled innocence that Watson does). Stellan Skarsgård (who would go on to a very successful international career) and the late Katrin Cartlidge are excellent, as is Adrian Rawlins as Dr. Richardson.
Apart from Emily Watson, the other star of the movie is, probably, my favourite director of photography, Robby Muller. His work on this movie is outstanding. This was one of the early features to be shot entirely on video. During the final post-production stages the video edit was recorded back onto 35mm film, giving the movie its striking grainy look, with the exception of the chapter cards which were obviously treated in a more ethereal, painterly fashion.
If you’ve never seen Breaking The Waves prepare yourself for an intense emotional journey. Resist learning too much of what happens before you watch it. It is a film that demands an open mind, an empathic heart, a curious soul. And a box of tissues. In one light a revisionist melodrama, but more emphatically I’d champion Breaking The Waves as a true masterpiece of modern cinema.