Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 9, 2017
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There are two moments near the beginning of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) that capture a little bit of what I love so much about his style of filmmaking, moments that make the film seem unrehearsed, almost as if it weren’t a narrative piece at all. The first is after Bess (Emily Watson) walks outside after meeting with the council of her church elders seeking permission to get married. She breathes in the air and then looks directly at the camera, smiling. The second occurs during the wedding of Bess and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) as we see Bess coming down the aisle. She smiles shyly at everyone then looks right into the camera and sticks her tongue out. Both are fourth wall breaks but are done without irony or sarcasm, done not to wink at the audience but to leave the impression that you’re there, with Bess, in the moment, sharing her story. Lars von Trier makes movies that infuriate people and I admit, it took me some time to appreciate his nuances, but once I did, I found myself rewatching his works and rediscovering an emotional intimacy few other filmmakers accomplish.
Bess McNeill is a gentle soul, one who cleans the church because she wants to and adheres to the strict rules of the sect, the Free Scottish Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It’s a Calvinist church with rigid standards, not allowing women to speak in church service or attend burials. Her groom to be, Jan, does not appear to have any religious beliefs and as an oil rig worker not native to the area, is considered an outsider unworthy of trust. But Bess is stalwart. When they ask Bess if she thinks she is strong enough to bear the responsibility of faith for herself and her husband, she confidently responds, “I know I am.”
Bess is quite possibly the most devout church member they have, and her faith is clearly rooted in a simplistic, childlike thought process. She even speaks to God out loud and, in her own voice, speaks God’s reply back to her, as if He were speaking directly through her. She also believes that God intervenes directly into her life as a result of her conversations with Him.
After they are married, Bess and Jan spend some time together before he has to go back to his oil rig. During this time, a funeral takes place and Bess, and her sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), tell Jan to go to the burial and listen, since he is a man and is allowed to go. What he hears is disturbing, as the minister proclaims that the deceased is damned to Hell, a fate he is said to deserve.
When Jan goes back to the rig, Bess cannot cope without him and prays intently for God to bring him back to her. On the rig, a pipe bursts and in the process of saving another worker, Jan is struck in the back of the head, breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed. He is immediately flown to the mainland and Bess can only assume this was the way God granted her wish. She blames herself for his condition and Jan, who only wants to die, tells her to find another lover. Her struggles with this, and the ultimate tragedy they lead to, as Bess believes she must submit to sex with strangers to appease God and heal Jan, seem as inevitable as her Calvinist faith would dictate. Of course, none of it is, but no one can convince Bess otherwise.
Emily Watson earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her work here and it couldn’t have been easy. Watson plays simple joy, childlike mischievousness, angry heartache, troubling despair, inconsolable anguish and quiet acceptance all without making the character seem like the next three faces of Eve. And Stellan Skarsgård and Katrin Cartlidge provide two of the best supporting performances seen that year but went unnominated nonetheless. Truly, everyone in the film, down to the smallest role, is perfect. And Udo Kier, without saying more than a few words, plays one of the most menacing characters of the 1990s.
Lars von Trier makes movies that mash together realistic elements, operatic plot developments and hand-held documentary-like camera work in an uneasy mix that often leads to his membership in the “love him or hate him” club of filmmakers. It’s understandable and I myself took a while to come around to his magic. When I first saw Dancer in the Dark, his 2000 work with an extraordinary lead performance by Björk, I was not a fan but now it has become one of my favorite films. I was put off by the clashing styles because I went into the film with expectations of how the movie should be made and took some time to see it for what it was.
Years later, I saw Breaking the Waves, even though it was made earlier than Dancer in the Dark, and by then was familiar with von Trier’s techniques. His characters go to extremes, and his plots reveal dramas that would seem too operatic even for Wagner. And no one cries in a von Trier film. They sob. They weep. They scream in anguish. To borrow a meme, one does not simply walk into a von Trier film and expect subtlety. One walks into a von Trier work ready to be assaulted on every emotional front. For some people that works, for others, it doesn’t. Originally for me, it didn’t. Now it does. Breaking the Waves tests the limits of his style, and succeeds.
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