Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone.
Set in Scotland during the 1970s and shot with jittery cameras by Robby Müller on the Isle of Skye, Breaking the Waves is the first movie Trier made after becoming the ringleader of the Dogme 95 movement, which advocated a stripped-down, naturalistic filmmaking style. Breaking the Waves feels of a piece with Dogme 95, although it breaks too many of the associated rules to qualify as a Dogme work. It takes place in a small community whose religious tendencies are so severe that the local house of worship lacks church bells and women are forbidden from speaking inside. Into this rigid milieu stumble Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) and his merry band of oil-rig workers. Jan is tolerated, just, as he has fallen in love with one of the locals, Bess (Emily Watson), whom he has promised to marry before leaving for his next many-months-long shift at sea. A bit at sea herself, Bess is a gentle but guileless soul with a big, loving face and childlike demeanour who believes she has conversations with a gruff, paternalistic God. (She acts out both sides of the conversation.) Her guardian angel is her widowed sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), who tries to balances her fears for Bess’s well-being with respect for her independence.
It is a story of outsiders. Bess and Dodo stand apart not simply because they are women but also because they lack the proscribed piety of the other villagers; and Dodo is a literal outsider who never returned home after the death of her husband. Jan and his friends are outsiders in terms of their youth (their raucousness, their drinking, their rock music) and their profession. Dodo is suspicious of his seriousness, but she accepts Jan in part because of his shared outsider status. And so sister and husband form an uneasy alliance in support of Bess.
Then things get uncomfortable. A crippling accident on the oil rig sends Jan home, paralyzed. From his sickbed, he urges devoted, distraught Bess to take a new lover. The film doesn’t make it exactly clear where this odd entreaty comes from, but he cajoles Bess into an awkward, and obviously dangerous, promiscuity with strangers. He tells her it will help him recover. Bess is naïve about such stuff–she initially throws herself at the family doctor (Adrian Rawlins), another outsider, to no avail–and her private consultations with God seem to underscore an urgency in Jan’s request. Her compliance starts with a sad handjob on public transit, evolves into random one-night-stands, and culminates in out-and-out prostitution.
It’s hard to summarize the story of Breaking the Waves without wincing; it sounds just terrible, and indeed hostile viewers have cudgelled Trier with accusations of misogyny since the film’s release, using Dancer in the Dark and Dogville as corroborating evidence but pointing to Breaking the Waves as exhibit A. Though his previous films were fairly popular on the arthouse circuit, taking awards at Cannes and the like, Breaking the Waves made Lars von Trier’s name on a global scale. He retreated from the highly conceptual approach of his previous feature, the visually impressive Europa, taking cues instead from his vérité-styled horror TV miniseries The Kingdom. Müller’s cameras are handheld, a trick that casts the illusion of documentary realism across the proceedings, and the editing is impatient, with jump cuts pushing the narrative forward with a stutter-stop momentum that dares the audience to keep up. The edits are chosen to maintain intensity from start to finish; in keeping with the documentary style, some shots selected for inclusion are out of focus. The results are remarkable. From its earliest scenes, the world of the film seems unbalanced. On repeat viewings, when you know what’s coming, every scene is infused with a palpable sense of dread.
The picture owes its success in large part to Watson’s out-of-nowhere performance as Bess. She has a round, cherubic face and the camera hovers close to her, fixing her in its gaze à la Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. She’s alternately charming and frightening. As a gamine, smiling shyly in scenes with her beloved Jan, or taking an innocent pleasure in learning the basics of sex play (edited from the U.S. theatrical release but on screen in home-video versions), she’s incredibly endearing. But as a frightened woman–her sudden shriek of horror ripping into a room, or her unquiet eyes, ever searching, landing on the camera–she’s unforgettable. Either way, she’s convincing. She needs to be: It’s only the sense that you understand Bess, that you get the joy, pain, terror, and resignation she’s feeling from scene to scene, that allows you to follow her into oblivion.
Well, some viewers won’t go along, and that’s understandable. Yet something needs to be said about Trier’s supposed misogyny. It’s true that cinema has a long history of treating women poorly, but it’s uncharitable to reverse-engineer a movie and declare that, because bad things happen to female characters on screen, the filmmaker must be a misogynist. Misogyny is one of Trier’s great subjects, of course–as he was writing his controversial psychological horror Antichrist, he famously hired a misogyny consultant to clarify some of the more breathtaking examples of anti-woman sentiment in all of human history. Many saw that as a dick move from a filmmaker fully immersed in his own sexist attitudes, but to me it was evidence of a seriousness of purpose. No anti-Semite making a movie about Hitler is going to fund a study of mistreatment of the Jewish people across history, and a white supremacist is going to have little interest in delving into the dark past of American slavery.
The evidence is on screen as well–Trier’s interest in Bess is too searching and sensitive to read credibly as sadistic. No sane human being is getting his or her jollies from what happens to her. Trier identifies with her deeply. Too, Breaking the Waves is explicitly about patriarchy. It’s the church, with its cheerless austerity, and Bess’s uncritical acceptance of religious dogma, that makes possible her catastrophic failure to value her own body and soul. And while the church elders scorn her self-destructive behaviour, they don’t consign her to what can only be described as hell on earth until she dares to violate the most petty of their rules, the taboo against women speaking in church. “They who know you shall not know you,” the minister roars from the pulpit, and so the die is cast: “Be gone, Bess McNeill, from the house of God.”
Bess’s endgame is the stuff of nightmares. (It takes place largely off screen, but it involves a knife, a gun, and Udo Kier.) The climax of Breaking the Waves takes the audience to a very uncomfortable place. At which point things get even weirder. In context, the film’s jaw-dropping epilogue is downright transgressive. When he made Breaking the Waves, Trier was a fairly recent convert to Catholicism after being raised by atheists, and I think the picture reflects a tension there, executing an at-first-perplexing 180-degree manoeuvre away from nihilism to affirmation. It radiates warmth, and it’s a relief. But reading it as an uncomplicated endorsement of Bess’s behaviour is a mistake. Breaking the Waves is about Bess’s goodness, yes, but it’s also about her collapsing mental state, and about the many heartbreaking ways that institutions–marriage, medicine, the church, the Mental Health Act–fail her. At the same time, the film vividly addresses issues of faith, sacrifice, and, most importantly, the responsibility of human beings to care for one another when God clearly cannot. Trier delivers a happy ending, though I’m not convinced. To me, it’s deeply upsetting, and that makes the movie all the more powerful. Does it contradict itself? Very well. It’s a film invested with greatness.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Breaking the Waves arrives on Blu-ray in a region A Criterion release bearing the Janus Films logo. Visually, it’s not so much a remastering of the film as a rebirth. To understand why this new transfer of Breaking the Waves looks so much different from any previous version, it helps to know why the movie looked so lousy in theatres. Enamoured of digital video and its then-cutting-edge colour-correction technology, Trier shot the film in Super35, transferred it to D1 (that’s a standard-definition digital videotape, not even an HD format), desaturated the colour, and output the degraded results to anamorphic 35mm for theatrical exhibition. The resulting image was smeary and dreary, a presumably accurate representation of Trier’s feelings about Bess’s immediate surroundings. Criterion put out a LaserDisc in 1997–converted from a PAL video transfer, whose sped-up frame rate accounts for the difference in running time between this 159-minute version and the 153-minute LD–that fairly accurately reflected the somewhat sickly look of theatrical prints; subsequent DVD editions offered a similar colour palette.
Criterion’s Blu-ray resembles none of these earlier releases. No, this reissue is absolutely stunning. The liner notes indicate that the source materials include 6K scans of the original camera negative and “the 35mm internegative,” an oblique reference I interpret as pointing to the gauzy animated vistas that separate the film’s different chapters–image composites that were created in the digital realm by artist Per Kirkeby, then output to celluloid. The digital files were restored at a working resolution of 4K and downres’d to HD for Blu-ray. At a cursory glance, the image doesn’t look that much better–it’s still largely monochrome and very brown, verging on sepia–but where there is colour, it’s reasonably well saturated, and there is a ton of added detail visible on screen, including a thick and sharply-defined layer of film grain, mostly in the interior scenes. That’s what’s important: For the first time, Breaking the Waves looks like a film, rather than a glorified home video. It’s a glorious restoration, like peeling up a layer of carpet stained with cat piss and coffee to reveal a polished hardwood floor underneath.
I suppose writing this makes me a hypocrite, since I’ve long argued that Blu-rays should strive to reproduce the experience of seeing a really great film print, as opposed to presenting some stylized modern version with reduced film grain, fashionably saturated teals and oranges, or re-recorded Foley effects spread across an expanded surround soundstage. But Breaking the Waves is a special case. I truly believe that Trier’s early embrace of low-resolution digital video constituted a technical misstep, and I’m pleased that, given the opportunity to redress that error, he has opted to rescue the film from the digital mire instead of consigning it to live forever at DVD resolution. (Now if someone will pony up to do the same for cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s astounding work on Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, I’ll be eternally grateful.) I don’t mean to oversell it, because the originally-intended effect is still largely in place–colours remain muted, a high proportion of the imagery is out of focus, etc. Black levels, contrast, etc., all seem to be perfectly dialled in. If you love Breaking the Waves, watching this disc may be, well, a religious experience.
The soundtrack, on board in 5.1 DTS-HD MA, is nonetheless almost entirely mono, save for some short bursts of rock music in stereo and a final, clamorous sound effect that dominates the surround sound field in the film’s closing moments. There are no issues with the audio, which has a strong presence up front and plenty of dynamic range to handle everything from whispered dialogue to the banging and clanging of the oil rig environment and the roaring waves themselves. Even better, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” has been restored as the backing track for the final chapter marker, unsatisfactorily rescored with “Your Song” by Elton John on all previous U.S. video releases.
The disc features 45 minutes or so of audio commentary by von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and Anthony Dod Mantle, now an Oscar-winning cinematographer but then a location scout on Breaking the Waves. (Mantle also makes a verbal cameo as one of the village’s recently deceased; the minister declares, “Anthony Dod Mantle, you are a sinner and you deserve your place in Hell.”) It’s interesting for its discussion of the movie’s formalism, specifically its editorial style and fluid camerawork, as well as Trier’s consistent self-criticism over mistakes he feels he made at the time of shooting. Not new to this release, this yakker is a holdover from a 2003 Danish DVD.
Two of the requisite actor interviews are new to Criterion, and meatier than most. Emily Watson spends 17 minutes talking about her experience making her film debut and basically drops a bombshell: she says she grew up in a religious cult, from which acting in Breaking the Waves helped her break free, in part because her decision to play Bess was seen as a betrayal. She discusses her ambivalent-at-best reaction to the film, which became more positive once she saw its reception at Cannes. She also mentions that Trier told her he had just left his wife and child as shooting began. It’s riveting. Supplementing this piece are two minutes of video footage from her audition (with optional audio commentary by Trier, Refn, and Mantle) in which she appears barefoot in a plain grey dress and overacts, but apparently in just the right way. (“She is a lamb that just needs a little guidance…from a dirty old man,” Trier notes with a disconcerting chuckle.)
In a companion 12-minute interview, Stellan Skarsgård is similarly candid but full of bluster, trotting out an oldie but a goodie when he describes his reaction to Trier’s earlier films: “I saw that he was a brilliant director and I said to myself, ‘I want to work with this man when he becomes interested in people.'” He spends a good chunk of time on Trier’s directorial style–in one anecdote, Trier blasts Skarsgård as a “sullen Swede” before the actor invites the “little cunt” to bring his camera closer to the action. He also comes to Trier’s defense against the ever-present charges of misogyny. Finally, actor Adrian Rawlins gets two minutes of face time in a thin talking-head clip that dates to 2004.
Critic and filmmaker Stig Bjorkman visited the set and, in a 10-minute interview segment, reports on the healthy working atmosphere, going so far as to invoke the spectre of Ingmar Bergman, who he notes was highly organized on set, no matter how chaotic his private life might have been. “It was very jolly from Lars’s side,” he says, then describes how Trier evolved from his early fascination with technical aspects of filmmaking and eventually learned how to work fruitfully with actors, citing The Kingdom as the turning point. He compares Trier to an artist with different “periods” characterized by different styles of work. It’s a scrupulously friendly but efficient LVT 101.
Four “deleted and extended scenes” date back to the LaserDisc, although the audio commentary accompanying them appears to have originated on the aforementioned Danish release. Only two of them are really key–in one of them, Jan explains the motivation behind his insistence that Bess should fuck him back to health; in another, Dodo is seen sitting with Bess’s mother as the two of them ignore her cries for help from outside the family home. (Trier explains that test audiences reacted badly to the presence of Dodo in this scene–a bridge too far, I suppose, given the unfailingly muddy waters Trier expected viewers to cross throughout the film.) The picture quality, too, is about the same as the LD, offering an interesting point of restoration comparison. A fifth deleted scene was resurrected as a kind of tribute to Cartlidge, who died unexpectedly in 2002.
Two more LD holdovers, in standard-def, fill out the Blu-ray Disc: an odd “promotional clip” tailored for the Cannes jury that features 15 seconds of Trier in a kilt; and a theatrical trailer set to Deep Purple‘s scream-tastic “Child of Time.” The package additionally comes with a 32-page booklet containing critic David Sterritt’s essay “Breaking the Rules,” a relevant excerpt from Stig Bjorkman’s 1999 interview collection Trier on von Trier, and copious production stills. As is standard for Criterion these days, this is a dual-format (BD/DVD) release.
Note: This review was written for Film Freak Central in 2014. It supersedes an earlier review written for this site on the film’s original release in 1996 that is preserved for posterity.