Wednesday November 20, 1996
"Breaking the Waves" is skillful and provocative filmmaking sent on a fool's errand. Personal with a vengeance, impressive enough to take the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, it is not an easy film to sit through or forget. But what it finally offers is the flimsy illusion of profundity more than the real thing itself.
The first English-language film by Danish director Lars von Trier, "Waves" is intent on making a strong impression. Laced with tight close-ups and whip pans, the picture's in-everyone's-face cinematography (shot exclusively with a hand-held camera by Robby Muller) forces itself on characters and audience alike. Intentionally claustrophobic, it insists on our participation, repeatedly strong-arming viewers into a forced intimacy that compels interest without being either believable or persuasive.
"Breaking the Waves" does have the advantage of a terribly alive performance by Emily Watson, a Royal Shakespeare Company actress making her film debut. Watson's portrait of Bess, a woman whose ability to believe against all reason transforms her life and that of those around her, is the always expressive heart of the film and the reason Von Trier's effort is at all convincing.
As an examination of the nature and power of faith, "Breaking the Waves" was likely influenced by 1955's "Ordet" (The Word), one of the last works by Denmark's greatest filmmaker, Carl Theodor Dreyer. But where "Ordet's" story of a woman brought back from the dead by the strength of pure belief gains power due to the simplicity and austerity with which its told, "Breaking the Waves' " similar story feels tarted up and even misogynistic due to its peculiar focus on sexual humiliation as the path to saintliness.
Weighing in at 2 hours and 38 minutes and broken up into half a dozen or so discrete chapter-like sections, "Breaking the Waves" is set in the early 1970s on a remote Scottish island, wind-swept and unforgiving. Its few inhabitants form a rigid community dominated by a dour Calvinist sect so stern it doesn't even want bells in its simple church.
The islanders are especially upset by the presence just offshore of amoral oil-rig workers from the outside world. One of them, a hearty roustabout named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), has met and won Bess, and the film opens with the preparations for their wedding.
Even at first glance Bess is a complicated creature, headstrong with her emotions always close at hand. Subject to intense mood swings that have had her hospitalized in the past, Bess has the strength of an innocent spirit coupled with a susceptibility that frightens her watchful, common-sensical sister-in-law Dodo ("Naked's" Katrin Cartlidge), who knows Bess would "give anything to anybody."
Quite apart from this, Bess is convinced she can talk to God and that he answers back. The scenes of their two-way conversations in the spare church--with Bess taking both voices as the Lord sternly admonishes her, "You must be a good girl"--are convincing in their eerie combination of schizophrenia and religious belief.
The film's early sections show the marriage and its honeymoon aftermath and leave no doubt that Jan and Bess enjoy the kind of active sexual connection Dr. Ruth would approve of. But happy as they are, a cloud of doom hangs over this couple, fueled by the inevitability of Jan having to return alone to his working life on the rig.
Once he goes, Bess demands of God that her husband be sent back. Which he is, but paralyzed from the neck down as a result of an accident. Depressed and suicidal, Jan finds time to focus on the state of Bess' love life, encouraging her to take lovers and then come back and tell him about it.
While this is nominally done with the high-minded aim of setting Bess free from wasting her life worrying about him, the possibility of kinky voyeurism as Jan's prime motivator is never convincingly disposed of. And when Bess starts to believe that her forays into promiscuity have a connection with Jan's physical well-being, the puerile nature of Von Trier's concerns becomes increasingly evident.
For although its glum and grueling affect will be a comfort to those who want to believe that misery is the handmaiden of art, "Breaking the Waves" stands revealed at its conclusion as trite and even juvenile, with ideas about women as self-sacrificing saintly whores that are more embarrassing than convincing. Shallow where it would be meaningful, demanding leaps of faith it has not earned, this film's marriage of arresting technique to empty thinking is not unique, only frustrating.
Breaking the Waves, 1996. R, for strong graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some violence. Released by October Films. Director Lars von Trier. Producers Vibeke Windelov, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Executive producer Lars Jonsson. Screenplay by Lars von Trier. Cinematographer Robby Muller. Editor Anders Refn. Costumes Manon Rasmussen. Music arranged and orchestrated Joachim Holbek. Art director Karl Juliusson. Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes. Emily Watson as Bess. Stellan Skarsgard as Jan. Katrin Cartlidge as Dodo. Jean-Marc Barr as Terry. Udo Kier as Man on the Trawler. Adrian Rawlins as Dr. Richardson.