Breaking the Waves (Denmark/France, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

According to writer/director Lars von Trier, Breaking the Waves is "a simple love story", but "simple" hardly begins to describe this deeply disturbing, multi-layered drama. In fact, nowhere is the picture's complexity more evident than in its study of contrasts -- it is highly spiritual yet anti-religious, triumphant yet tragic, and personal yet universal. Love forms the film's core, but rather than approaching the subject from a cliched perspective, Breaking the Waves examines no less than six facets of the emotion: transformative love, sacrificial love, redemptive love, destructive love, romantic love, and sexual love. And, despite a slightly disappointing conclusion, this movie still rates among the best of the year.

To date, von Trier's best-known international effort was the 1991 release, Zentropa (called Europa outside of North America). Those whose familiarity with the director dates to that movie will find Breaking the Waves a surprising experience. Gone are the artistic, stylized flairs that dominated Zentropa. The nearly-antiseptic perspective has been replaced by something far more involved and intimate. It's easy to view the characters in Zentropa from a detached vantage point; a similar approach is impossible for Breaking the Waves.

This epic-length film is divided into nine sections: a prologue, seven "chapters", and an epilogue. Breaking the Waves transpires sometime during the 1970s in Scotland. (The exact year is irrelevant since there's a timeless quality to the material -- it could be taking place today if the music, clothing, and automobiles didn't argue for an earlier decade.) Most of the action occurs in a closed village with deeply-rooted fundamentalist Christian beliefs. According to the elders who rule with an iron fist, life isn't for enjoyment; it's for serving God. Sex isn't for pleasure; it's for procreation. Outsiders aren't welcome; they're consigned to hell. So when meek, kind-hearted Bess (Emily Watson) announces that she intends to marry oil-rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an unbeliever, the entire community is stunned.

Despite the stern disapproval of all the elders, the marriage goes ahead, and Bess finds herself happier than she ever could have imagined. She enjoys sex almost as much as she does the simple joy of lying in her snoring husband's arms. But heartbreak looms ahead. Jan returns to his rig, leaving a lonely Bess behind. Even her best friend and sister-in-law, Dorothy (Before the Rain's Katrin Cartlidge), can't lift her out of her profound depression, but when a local doctor (Adrian Rawlins) is called in to evaluate her mental state, he proclaims her sane. Then tragedy strikes as a freak work accident renders Jan paralyzed from the neck down.

Central to the narrative is Bess' relationship with God. For most of the movie, von Trier keeps it ambiguous whether she is psychotic or truly involved in some kind of special communion with the Almighty. Does she really hear God's voice, or is she exhibiting signs of a split personality? Is she His instrument of salvation, or is she merely experiencing potentially self-destructive delusions? Unfortunately, in a late scene, von Trier tips the balance in favor of one interpretation, and this dilutes the film's overall impact.

That said, there's little doubt that von Trier is using Breaking the Waves as an opportunity to contrast the elders' rigid, unforgiving attitudes with Bess' gentle, giving spirit. Because her unorthodox attempts to save her injured husband involve breaking the Law, she puts her status within the community at jeopardy. To further emphasize the strength of her position's spiritual foundation, von Trier parallels Bess' sufferings with those of Jesus -- she is condemned by the holders of the Law, suffers for the sake of those she loves, and, ultimately, offers a path to salvation.

Breaking the Waves is presented as an excursion in cinema verite. Von Trier, in collaboration with cinematographer Robby Muller, uses a handheld camera throughout. In addition, in order to obtain a grainy image with muted colors, the film makers took the original widescreen print, transferred it to video, then brought it back to film. So, while there are times when Breaking the Waves may threaten to induce nausea (especially to those who sit close to the screen), this style effectively creates a faux documentary environment that breaches invisible barriers and brings us into painfully close contact with the characters.

One area where von Trier errs is in his use of artistic "chapter breaks". Each chapter has a title that's presented during a brief intermission from the action which features a richly-hued, painting- like image on screen while '70s rock tunes (like Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" or David Bowie's "Life on Mars") play in the background. The biggest problem with these inserts is that, while they offer a brief respite from the film's unrelenting intensity, their interruption of the mood becomes an unwanted intrusion.

As the deeply disturbed Bess, British stage actress Emily Watson turns in an award-worthy performance. Since Bess must endure a number of physically and mentally degrading events while her volatile personality veers from emotional calm to complete hysteria, Watson's task of creating a believable character becomes more difficult as the movie progresses. To her credit, she never falters. The supporting players, including Stellan Skarsgard and Katrin Cartlidge, do fine jobs, but none captures the lens the way Watson does.

There's no denying that Breaking the Waves is a difficult motion picture to endure, yet, despite its length, it holds the viewer's attention for the full one-hundred fifty-nine minutes. Excepting the chapter breaks, there isn't a wasted moment. And, if not for a somewhat forced catharsis during the epilogue (the weakest segment of the movie), Breaking the Waves would have been more wrenching than it is. This achievement announces that von Trier's aptitude for fashioning characters equals, if not exceeds, that which he has previously displayed for images.

Breaking the Waves (Denmark/France, 1996)

Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Adrian Rawlins, Udo Kier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Robby Muller
Music: Joachim Holbek
U.S. Distributor: October Films
Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 2:39
U.S. Release Date: 1996-11-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1