Breaking the Waves, a powerful fable from Danish director Lars von Trier (Zentropa, The Kingdom) is as daunting as it is satisfying. The satisfaction comes from von Trier’s audacious and ever-deepening sense for filmmaking — Breaking the Waves is his most ambitious and skillfully drawn narrative so far, and it offers the pleasure of undertaking an uncertain journey, unsure of where it might all end. That’s also what’s daunting. Breaking the Waves is epic in scope, careering wildly from warm and fleshy love story to grim tragedy to something else entirely over the course of its 158 minutes. It’s a film that demands your rapt attention bit by bit, plumbing ever-deeper corners of the soul and plunging at one point into the abyss. Finally, once it’s over, it will return day by day to haunt its audiences. This is seriously nervy filmmaking.
Breaking the Waves derives its truest power from Emily Watson’s fevered performance in the lead. Watson makes her film debut as Bess, a young woman in a small Scottish village who’s getting married to Jan, a strapping oil-rig worker, as the movie begins. The union is looked on with disapproval by the Presbyterian village elders, who muzzle women’s voices in church and take their greatest apparent satisfaction in consigning sinners to damnation. To the villagers, Bess is a suitable case for treatment, an emotional basket case in a community that prides itself on restraint. But Bess is determined to marry, and the post-wedding scenes detail her giddy sexual awakening in explicit yet gentle detail. With Jan, she has found happiness.
It’s not long before Jan is called back to sea, and Bess lives in dread of the day that he will leave. She can’t help herself â just before Jan’s airborne, she cries out in pain and rushes the helicopter, pulling the hatch open to take one last look at her beloved. In another scene, Bess waits all day beside a country road in the rain, under cover of the telephone booth where she has arranged to receive Jan’s phone call. The erotically charged conversation is testimony to her newfound comfort and maturity. She’s a woman who takes the most profound and life-affirming satisfaction in sexual pleasure, and she prays to God for Jan’s swift return. The prayer is answered — Jan is clocked on the head by a piece of heavy equipment and returns to the village on a stretcher, paralyzed.
Bess blames herself, believing that her prayers are responsible for Jan’s horrible misfortune. Upset that he can’t make love to her, Jan instructs his wife not to dress in tight clothing, lest he be too aware of her body, out of reach. And then he tells her she must have sex with other men so that she can return to his bed and recount her lovemaking to him — in this way, he insists, he can be reminded of her sexuality and his otherwise worthless life can be saved.
We get the distinct feeling that while Bess is nothing but sincere in her devotion to her husband, Jan’s motivations are at best misguided and at worst downright malevolent. Ostensibly, he’s trying to give her life back to her, but how could he be unaware of the pain his demands cause her? Moreover, how can he stand to direct his beloved to debase herself by, say, sitting next to a 50-year-old stranger at the back of a bus and giving him a hand job? Or by making a clumsy, naked pass at Jan’s doctor? Still, Jan’s condition is seen to improve as Bess puts out, and that’s reason enough for her to clothe herself in the borrowed trappings of a cheap whore.
Is this beginning to sound ridiculous, like the thinly constructed plot of a softcore porn movie on late night cable TV? Von Trier dares to walk that line, and such is his skill and conviction that he staves off the inherent tawdriness of such a concept and invests it with a fierce gravity. Stylistically, Breaking the Waves has a lot in common with the director’s television project, The Kingdom. In his breakthrough, Zentropa, von Trier used every optical trick in the book to create a highly stylized world — replete with rear-projection effects and process shots — that was more memorable for its visual impact than for its overreaching characterization and narrative. But The Kingdom was a marvel, a four-and-a-half hour ghost story that seemed to pass in little more than a moment. Propelled by a fitful documentary film style and a picture drained of most color and detail, The Kingdom‘s supernatural pretensions were validated and even amplified by a mood that felt like cinema verité.
Breaking the Waves takes greater risks, and cinematographer Robby Müller (Paris, Texas) was obviously directed to take a similar approach. The film’s bleak look is reminiscent of The Kindom’s — both were shot on film, transferred to video and then back to film again, which leeched out color and detail and imbued the image with an odd, nearly ethereal quality — but where The Kingdom took place mostly within the institutional confines of a single building, Breaking the Waves allows that highly processed, unnatural patina to infect a village, a countryside, and indeed the whole world. In this bleak context, Müller, whose extensive work with Wim Wenders is justly admired, showcases the fine naturalistic portrayals of the characters peopling that dim vista. If the bleak imagery represents von Trier’s intellectual guidance, in the rhythm of the camerawork and the editing we can feel the movie’s heartbeat.
And when Müller’s camera hovers for long moments in front of Emily Watson’s face, it finds the movie’s soul. Hers is one of those rare performances that it’s impossible to overpraise. The relationship between Watson and the camera is reminiscent of nothing so much as the cold and exacting gaze that delineates Renee Falconetti’s monumental performance in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (perhaps significantly; like Saint Joan, Bess is more or less accused of heresy). The character of Bess becomes inarguably flesh, and Watson inhabits that flesh with preternatural aplomb. With wide, round eyes and slim lips the dark shade of blood, there’s nothing vague about Watson’s emoting. Her feelings are communicated with a precision that can be charming, as when those lips curl near the cheek to puff a strand of hair out of her eyes, or wrenching, as when her shriek suddenly pierces the movie’s uncommon quiet. Her marriage has transformed her suddenly from virgin into a woman of full sexuality whose very essence seems saturated with pleasure by the act of lovemaking. (Helena Bonham Carter, who could hardly be so unspoiled a presence, reportedly won the role of Bess and then turned it down.) Even when she’s carrying on a two-way conversationwith God — or on those occasions where she glances directly at the camera — the character is never overplayed, and our understanding of Bess is key to our willingness to follow her on what seems to be rather a dispiriting journey.
The performances are, in fact, uniformly excellent. The beefy Stellan Skarsgård plays Jan as an imperfect yet admirable husband, the kind of robust fellow who can truly demand your sympathy when he’s laid up in a hospital bed. His playful physicality in the early scenes is key to the rest of his performance, since we need something to remember him by once he’s supine and under the influence of drugs and depression. And Katrin Cartlidge as Bess’s loving sister-in-law Dodo, who’s at all times wary of Jan’s influence, is the essential intellectual bridge between the outcast Bess and the rest of this fundamentalist community. Von Trier’s heroine is a Good Woman, but Dodo helps remind us that her selflessness isn’t wholly admirable, or rational.
That having been said, the real crux of Breaking the Waves is a circumstance that can’t be revealed in a movie review. Let’s just say that once the narrative concludes, von Trier gives us an “epilogue” that confounds all expectations. The last moments of this film are by far the most challenging, and after some reflection I’ve decided that without them — the final shot in particular — Breaking the Waves would simply be an extraordinary film. As is, it’s a great one. Without resort to mere words, von Trier breaks the bounds of narrative and presents a resolution that’s as troublesome as it is fulfilling. In a bold refutation of its own grim, nearly sardonic logic, Breaking the Waves cuts to the quick of religious faith, personal sacrifice, and human existence.