BREAKING THE WAVES
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Adrian Rawlins,
Director: Lars von Trier
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 152 Minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2014
“Everyone says I love you too much.”
Lars von Trier remains one of modern filmmaking’s most intriguing directors. I can’t exactly call him one of my favorites, though he’s definitely made some movies I cherish. His cinematic worlds don’t bear much resemblance to real life as I know it, yet somehow in the midst of head-shaking incredulity, he stumbles across the barest and most profound human truths. He goes into every movie seemingly with complete reckless abandon and puts no boundaries on himself, be they cinematographic rules, reality, or even good taste. He doesn’t always succeed, but each film, whether a success or a failure, succeeds or fails spectacularly.
Breaking the Waves was not his first movie, but it was, I believe, the film that first brought international attention to von Trier. It is a film almost without realism in story or concept, yet rings true in every emotional sense. In it, he takes sweet, simple innocence and puts it through every kind of torture and endurance test imaginable to find out if it can still remain innocence after it all. I think he was just as surprised as his audience to find out that it could.
Innocence is represented by the childlike, wide-eyed Bess (Watson), who announces her desire to wed Jan (Skarsgard), an offshore oil worker, to her church. The church doesn’t like “outsiders”, but the wedding goes on.
Bess and Jan are very much in love, and though Bess enters the wedding a virgin, soon seems gleefully insatiable. The first test of innocence: very vivid and illustrative sex scenes.
Bess is very devoted to God, and prays constantly, but in a strange way. She both asks questions of God, and then answers them, as though God is speaking to her through her own voice. She turns to God when Jan is sent away on a lengthy work assignment, leaving her vulnerable and alone. She prays for God to send him home.
Jan is indeed sent home, but really, there is only one way an oil worker comes home early: an accident on the rig has left him with a broken (I think) neck and a massive head trauma. He is practically quadriplegic…but alive.
Their joyful sexual union is now over…but Jan has an unorthodox way of keeping it moving forward. He makes the request of Bess to take other lovers, and then to come to him and describe the encounters…for Jan, it is the only way to still be intimate with his wife, and the only way he can maintain a will to live.
And the innocent Bess, seeing Jan’s condition worsen, begins to comply…easily at first, but putting herself in worse and worse situations. Whenever she complies, Jan’s health improves…when she doesn’t, he deteriorates. Is it all in her mind, or is there something to this? She doesn’t view her acts as infidelity or enjoyable, but merely as expressions and proof of her love for Jan…the second test of innocence.
Finally, there is her church, which, like everything else, is hardly realistic. This is the kind of church that buries a member and openly condemns him to hell in the funeral. There is no joy in their services, nor seemingly any real point to them…men can speak in them, but women remain silent. Of course, they can only have one reaction when they learn of Bess’s deeds…driving her out. Even her own mother turns her back on Bess.
And what of God? Does He approve or disapprove? The film doesn’t pretend to say…but it does make clear that God is still with her and still loves her, even when Bess puts herself in the most dangerous situation imaginable, willing to sacrifice everything for her husband…the final test of innocence.
The last scene in the movie is pure fantasy; an exclamation point on the film’s blatant lack of realism in style or substance…and yet, the most perfect ending for this material imaginable. Innocence has indeed been tested…and ultimately rewarded.
Love him or hate him (and sometimes I do a little of both), I will say this for Lars von Trier: he is the only one who could make a film so blatantly and unapologetically sexual and somehow make it a feasible treatise on morality. He may be an atheist, but somehow he managed to create a potent (if entirely unconventional) affirmation of God.
Stellan Skarsgard has long been one of my favorite actors, and he does well in this picture, but the movie really belongs to Emily Watson. Her performance is astounding, heartbreaking, funny, and unforgettable…and really, is the one aspect of an otherwise fantastic experience that keeps it grounded in reality.
Yet I don’t kid myself enough to say this movie will please everyone…in fact, some might have a downright hostile reaction to the…well, overall absurdity of it all. Some people will be willing to go along for the ride, and some will be left at the station. There are some films von Trier has made where I never got on the train.
But Breaking the Waves is indeed a very good film, maybe JUST shy of being a great one. I admire it not so much for story or message, but more for the fact that in an age of moviemaking where directors constantly wink at their audiences and tread cautiously, this is a film that thoroughly rejects timidity and is willing to live or die by its own sword with no regrets.
Though made in 1996, this movie looks much older…one might be excused for thinking it was made in the 1970s. I believe this is a deliberate choice by von Trier, who uses filters to mute the colors and make the world seem drab (except for the fanciful chapter screens). Even a present is wrapped in brown, lifeless paper. The print itself shows some age, with slight occasional marks here and there, and the film stock is noticeably grainy and high contrast. All in all, it won’t be one of your best looking Blu-rays, but that is by design.
Though offering an uncompressed 5.1 track, there is not much demand here for the subwoofer or rear channels. Almost everything about the audio is driven by spoken words, and there is very little dynamic range at play, except again during the chapter headings, when some great classic rock bursts through (Jethro Tull, Rod Stewart, T-Rex, Bowie and more). A clean listen, but unremarkable.
There is not a full commentary, but there is an indexed scene-select one, featuring von Trier and his crew, that offers good and brief listens. There are new interviews with actors Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard, as well as a 2004 interview with Adrian Rawlins. You can see Emily Watson’s audition tape, with or without commentary from von Trier.
There are two deleted scenes and two extended scenes, a trailer, and an interview with critic Sgit Bjorkman about the film. Most amusingly is the clip that von Trier assembled to introduce his film to the audience at Cannes. Oh, Lars.
Rounding out is a terrific booklet…and this set includes the movie and features on two DVD discs, as well as everything on one Blu-ray.
Breaking the Waves put Lars von Trier on the map, and established him as the kind of director that, like his heroine, is willing to sacrifice all for what he loves. It’s not for everyone, but I count this movie as one of his triumphs.