Director Lars von Trier is nothing if not creative. From films like Epidemic in 1987 and Europa in 1991, to last year’s two-part Nymphomaniac, he has managed to bring a continually imaginative photographic and narrative formula to nearly all of his films, the best of which ultimately end up masterpieces of contemporary international cinema. It was arguably his 1996 feature, Breaking the Waves, that first, and most dramatically, catapulted him to the front ranks of modern-day global filmmaking, particularly within the arthouse arena and festival circuit, and understandably so. This affecting film is a powerful work that delves deeply into often unspoken and unconventional recesses of faith and love. Its themes are profound, its performances staggering throughout, and its visual palette and filmic technique are replete with saturated hues, vigorous camera work, and an unabashed intimacy.
It’s the imagery of Breaking the Waves that most benefits from the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD. The transfer is magnificent, with the granular quality sharply evident and the locations rendered markedly realistic by a now clearly visible level of interior and exterior detail. As von Trier notes in a printed interview included with the release, the film was transferred from film to video, the color was adjusted, and it was transferred back to film; this manipulation and visual experimentation has never been more apparent than it is here. Bonus features that include scene-specific commentary with von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle, as well as interviews, deleted and extended scenes, and von Trier’s rather curious Cannes Film Festival promotional clip, makes this a superb addition to Criterion’s already notable treatment of the director’s films. (It’s a shame they didn’t get their hands on Melancholia.)
The film begins with the uneasy wedding between Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a simple-minded, deeply religious, and purely good young woman, and Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård), a hardworking and occasionally rowdy but generally pleasant laborer on a nearby oil rig. Von Trier chooses to skip over their courtship (it must have been unorthodox), but it’s clear that their relationship is facing its fair share of obstacles. The locals are leery of “outsiders,” and while Jan is by no means a bad man, he and his friends are a little too unruly for their puritanical sensibilities. Most of the animosity arises due to the extremely conservative religiousness of those in the northern Scotland setting. Women do not speak during church services, nor can they attend funerals; in all aspects of life, these individuals are set in their restrictive, dogmatic ways. “Our church has no bells,” declares one elderly gentleman. “Not too fun, is it?” argues a friend of Jan’s. But this life is crucial to Bess. As von Trier notes, “Religion is her foundation,” and it proves to be the motivation, for better or worse, for most of her ensuing decisions.
While the villagers remain skeptical about the new couple, Bess is steadfast and confident; she is sure of her love for Jan and his love for her. The others are concerned, though. Everybody likes Bess — she has a big heart, giving freely of herself, to others, to the church, to her god — but her mental stability, or at least her cognizance, is shaky. There is some concern that in her blind obedience to Jan, he will take advantage of her. This seems unlikely, so subsequent audience allegiance is firmly placed with these young lovers as they stand strong against the naysayers. There’s also more than a little insinuation that jealousy is a factor in the local mistrust. Dodo McNeill (Katrin Cartlidge), Bess’ widowed sister-in-law, is mostly on the side of the newlyweds, but there is perhaps some resentment at their marital joy, which she no longer has. And in general, the happiness Jan and Bess express is not displayed elsewhere amongst this largely dour group of neighbors.
As with other von Trier films, particularly as of late, sex is important in Breaking the Waves, and it’s shown to be central to the early days of this marriage. It’s initially awkward for the inexperienced Bess, but Jan is gentle and caring and eventually, she grows increasingly uninhibited. When Jan goes back to work on the rig, she even attempts some sweetly uncomfortable phone sex. The importance of physical love in their relationship proves fundamental when tragedy strikes. As Bess childishly and anxiously waits for Jan (some accuse her of loving him too much, of being unable to function on her own), she prays for his return, and when that return comes due to a debilitating accident that leaves Jan paralyzed, she is racked by guilt. She believes she asked for this and God gave her what she wanted: Jan has indeed come home. The doctors aren’t convinced that the life Jan will have is worth living, but Bess remains optimistic. Sexuality again becomes prominent as Jan first requests that Bess wear looser clothing, so he can’t see her body and consequently become aroused, and then instructs her to seek out lovers and relay the experiences, somewhat similar to her phone sex routine. He reasons that it’s a way for them to have a type of sexual connection. Bess, who is still bothered by what she thinks she caused, does what Jan asks. She is relatively content to carry out whatever marital and spiritual obligations she can manage, and in her quest for redemption, it is hoped that both she and Jan will achieve a sort of mutual fulfillment.
Dodo and the others become troubled and even angered by this most unusual arrangement, but Bess insists that these “stories about love” are valuable: “Love can save Jan,” she contends. Bess and Jan’s situation in the community, which was precarious to begin with, is even more uncertain once word spreads of her dalliances. However innocent and well-intentioned she is, the villagers are unable to comprehend or sympathize. And once Jan’s condition deteriorates — physically and mentally — Bess isn’t sure how to cope; her actions grow more daring and dangerous and others become even more hostile. By the end of the film, conflicting opinions are given about Bess and her unique form of martyrdom. Jan’s doctor at one point describes her as “an immature, unstable person” who suffered from being good. Ultimately, the film’s final sequence and final image seem to suggest that maybe she was on to something after all.
As he would do in most of his films following this one, von Trier incorporates multiple formal devices to enhance and punctuate Breaking the Waves. To begin with, the film is broken up into novelistic chapter headings, the titles of which are shown over a scenic panorama of regional natural splendor with 1970s rock songs playing in the background. Neither the songs nor the images necessarily relate to the film’s basic narrative, but the breaks do provide moments of reflective respite from what is an otherwise intensely demanding feature. There are also Watson’s occasional glances at the camera. A Filmmaking 101 no-no, these direct confrontations with the audience arguably serve a variety of purposes, none of which are spelled out in any explicit fashion. Is Bess guiding the audience to join in with her joy or sorrow, to sympathize with her; is she perhaps inviting us to objectively contemplate her dilemma; or is it simply a self-conscious decision on von Trier’s part? It wouldn’t be the first or last time he did something provocative for provocative sake. Any – or all – of these options are equally plausible.
These direct looks at the camera are not the only deviations from standard cinematic rules and regulations regarding normative moviemaking practice. There are also jumps cuts, discontinuous sound, and a handheld camera that occasionally goes in and out of focus. These various stylistic choices contribute to the film’s modernist immediacy and a sense of the characters’ chaotically dramatic existence. It’s also part of an approach on von Trier’s mind at the time. Breaking the Waves was made just after the director joined other fellow Danish filmmakers to sign off on the so-called Dogme 95 manifesto, essentially eschewing typically used cinematic devices such as artificial lighting, a demonstrative score, optical effects, etc. As Breaking the Waves would nevertheless adhere to some of these customary conventions anyway (though it would ignore others), von Trier’s next film, The Idiots, would be his first true entry in the short-lived movement.
According to Stig Björkman, von Trier was initially quite afraid of actors and tended to focus more on the mechanical side of filmmaking. Björkman puts the change in this methodology around the time von Trier first started working on The Kingdom TV series, starting in 1994. Certainly Breaking the Waves still has its fair share of technical flair, unpolished though it may be, but clearly, von Trier was adjusting nicely to working with actors. Case in point: Emily Watson, a newcomer to movies at the time (who showed up for her audition barefoot – footage of which is also included on the disc). Watson notes an autobiographic interest in this film, having come from a strict cult-like religious upbringing, and she admits that this film, with its sexuality, nudity and rawness of emotion, was an “extreme place to start.” She reiterates the adjective by summing up the film as an “extreme version of human experience.”
Breaking the Waves would launch Watson’s career, and rightfully so, as she’s remarkable in the film, and it would also signal the beginning of an extraordinary string of female roles created by von Trier and brilliantly executed by a wide range of actresses through the years. While Kirsten Olesen turned in a great performance in the title role of von Trier’s Medea in 1988, it was with Watson that von Trier would establish himself as a preeminent director of women, from Björk to Nicole Kidman to, recently and especially, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Though the women in his films, including Watson here, do go through a lot — emotionally, physically, mentally —Skarsgård, for one, points out the absurdity of the accusations that von Trier doesn’t like women. Ever the provocateur, this is just one charge von Trier has had to contend with. But perhaps, as Skarsgård says, not necessarily pertaining to this issue, but just in general, “The problem’s not Lars von Trier. The problem’s the world.”
— Jeremy Carr