Directed by Lars von Trier and written by von Trier and Peter Asmussen, Breaking the Waves is the story of a young Scottish woman who tries to help her paralyzed husband by having sex with other men and tell him about it in order for him to feel closer to her. The film is von Trier’s first part of an unofficial trilogy exploring women in struggle through immense torment as it’s also the first film to reveal the aesthetics von Trier would use for the Dogme 95 movement. Starring Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Sandra Voe, Jean-Marc Barr, Adrian Rawlins, Jonathan Hackett, Udo Kier, and Katrin Cartlidge. Breaking the Waves is a heartbreaking yet soaring melodrama from Lars von Trier.
Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) is set to marry a Swedish oil rigger named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) in her strict, religious small town in Scotland as she gets the blessings of the religious council. Her wedding to Jan is a blissful one as her sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) makes a speech wishing them well as Bess’s life with Jan is one full of joy as she thanks God for making it happen. When Jan has to return to work, Bess is in despair as has a hard time dealing with Jan at work as she becomes desperate as she prays to God for his return. Jan returns but is paralyzed following an accident as Bess feels responsible as she tries to help her husband with help from Dodo, who is a nurse.
When Jan asks Bess to have sex with other men so he pretend that he’s making love with her, Bess refuses at first but decides to do it once Jan is back in the hospital. Bess tries to make various attempts by seducing Jan’s doctor Richardson (Adrian Rawlins) which doesn’t go well. With Dodo and Bess’ stern mother (Sandra Voe) realizing what is going on, it reaches the attention of the religious council led by its priest (Jonathan Hackett) to banish Bess. After meeting a sadistic sailor (Udo Kier), Bess begins to unravel as she asks Dodo to pray for Jan as she would the ultimate sacrifice.
The film is the story of a childlike yet woman in the 1970s who falls for this Swedish oil rigger as her devotion to him is tested following an accident as he becomes desperate to touch her as if they were making love. In this journey, the woman tries to seduce men around her town in hopes that her husband can feel her as if he is making love to her. Over the course of the film, both would start to unravel in different ways as one would find a way to save everything which requires a form of sacrifice.
The screenplay by Lars von Trier and Peter Asmussen is broken into several chapters to emphasize the course of the film which is often accompanied by dream-like paintings that come to life through visual effects. The chapters breaks, that are based on the art work of Pers Kirkeby, is often accompanied by a song from the late 1960s and early 1970s to emphasize the time frame of the story. Since the film features a lot of religious themes that is based partly on von Trier’s then-conversion to Catholicism in the 1990s as it provides a sense of motivation for Bess who often talks to God as she would speak his words in brash voice.
Bess McNeill is a character that is truly one of von Trier’s greatest creations as she is one that is full of innocence as she marries a man who has experienced the world. Through Jan, she discovers sex in its purest and most loving form as in her attempts to help the paralyzed Jan. She becomes desperate and unstable as she would later become a prostitute in order to have sex with other men. While some might claim that Bess’ descent into prostitution and how she gets treated will spark ideas of misogyny. That is not what von Trier is doing as it’s all about a woman trying to find the strength for what she does for her husband in a world where women can’t attend funerals in this religious society.
The script that von Trier and Asmussen creates is an exploration of a woman desperate to save her husband as she communicates to God who looks on at what she’s trying to do. In many ways, it’s God trying to test Bess in what she can do for her husband in a world where there’s a lot of religious oppression. For an outsider like Jan, he gets very close to see what goes on in a funeral scene while he asks the priest why there’s no bells in the church. It’s part of the world that von Trier and Asmussen creates which would allow for an ending where one character would defy this religious oppression while another would find some semblance of hope from above.
The direction of von Trier is probably his most potent and entrancing work of his career in the way he presents the film. Featuring a lot of dreamy chapter breaks, the film has a look that has a personal feel as von Trier goes for something that is reminiscent of a home movie as if it was shot in Super 8 film with natural light. Breaking from his more technical-driven yet more controlled filmmaking style of previous films, von Trier goes for a much looser yet more natural approach to the direction of the film. In this approach, hand-held cameras are used as there’s a shakiness to it without being too frenetic.
At the same time, there’s moments where the fourth wall is sort of broken as Bess is always looking directly at the camera which emphasize her innocent and playful persona. The film also has the feel and look of a storybook that comes to life through the chapter breaks as it includes an epilogue that dwells on melodrama without being too overly-sentimental and heavily-dramatic. There is a rawness to what von Trier aimed for while some of the sex scenes reach the line of being graphic at times though it’s meant to present sex in its purest form. The overall work that von Trier did is truly hypnotic and mesmerizing as he creates what is definitely his best film.
The cinematography of Robby Muller is definitely the film’s technical highlight for its grainy yet naturalistic look to emphasize the home-movie feel of the film. For some of the nighttime interiors, the film has a very dark look to play up its naturalistic look as there’s elements of a static look so that it plays to some of the aesthetics that von Trier is looking for. The daytime scenes with sunlight have a more heightened yet monochrome look where the colors of the film are de-saturated but in a dream-like look that is truly gorgeous. Editor Anders Refn does an amazing job with the stylized editing of the film that has a great emphasis on jump-cuts for some of the film’s playful yet unconventional rhythm that moves quite leisurely for a film with a 158-minute running time.
Art director Karl Juliusson does a great job with the set pieces created for the film such as Bess‘ home, the ship, and the oil rig scenes to create something that looks like that it comes from the world of the 1970s. Costume designer Manon Rasmussen does an excellent job with the costumes from the more plain clothes that Bess wears early on to the more thinner yet stylized dress that Jan bought for her including various clothes to play up the look of the 1970s. Sound designer Pers Streit and sound editor Kristien Eidnes Andersen do a superb job with the sound work to play up the naturalistic tone of the film with natural sounds presented throughout the film.
The film’s music soundtrack features a version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Siciliana - Sonata BWV n. 1031 that plays in the final credit by a trumpet and organ while the rest of the film’s soundtrack features an array of music from the 1970s. For the chapter breaks, there’s music by the likes of Mott the Hoople, Python Lee Jackson with Rod Stewart, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Leonard Cohen, Elton John (who also has two more cuts in the film), Deep Purple, and (in the theatrical version) David Bowie. Additional music that appears in the film include Roxy Music, Bob Dylan, Thin Lizzy, and T.Rex all play up to the world that is the 1970s.
The casting by Joyce Nettles is brilliant as it features appearances from von Trier regulars like Udo Kier as a sadistic sailor and Jean-Marc Barr as Jan’s best friend Terry. Other notable small roles include Mikkel Gaup and Roef Ragas as fellow oil riggers as well as Robert Robertson as one of the leaders of the religious council. Jonathan Hackett is very good as the very strict and humorless priest while Sandra Voe is excellent as Bess’ stern yet grounded mother. Adrian Rawlins is wonderful as the sympathetic but conflicted Dr. Richardson who helps with Jan’s paralyzed state while also trying to help Bess. Katrin Cartlidge is superb as Dodo, Bess’ sister-in-law who tries to help Jan in the hospital while trying to protect Bess from trouble as she gives truly a mesmerizing performance.
Stellan Skarsgard is great as Jan, the oil-rigger that Bess falls for as he has a playful side to him but once he’s paralyzed, he gives a more reserved performance as a man desperate to please his wife though he couldn’t touch her. Finally, there’s Emily Watson in her film debut as Bess McNeill. Watson’s performance is truly one of the most iconic and heartbreaking performances captured on film. For the way she exudes a childlike innocence throughout the film while being all brash as she speaks the words of God. It’s also one full of charm and anguish as it’s definitely a performance for the ages from one of Britain’s great actresses.
The 2014 Region 1/Region A 2-disc DVD/1-disc Blu-Ray dual-format release of the film from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a newly remastered 4K digital restoration print supervised by Lars von Trier with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on Blu-Ray and 5.1 Surround Sound for its DVD. In its 2:35:1 aspect ratio, the film is given a richer look while retaining the grainy look from Robby Muller’s de-saturated yet atmospheric cinematography. In the first disc of the DVD, the only special feature in the DVD is a trailer for the film that serves as a prototype of red-band trailers.
The second disc of the DVD features a 47-minute selected-scene audio commentary track from von Trier, editor Anders Refn and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle who was the film’s location scout in the production. The trio discuss not just the approach to editing where von Trier and Refn reveal that the reasons the way the film was edited in such a offbeat way was that it would serve as an emotional tool rather than something conventional. The trio also discuss the look of the film, the performances, and some of the locations where it was shot partially in Scotland while some of it was shot in Denmark. It’s a fine special feature that features some humorous anecdotes as well as some criticism where Refn reveals his own quibbles about aspects of the ending.
The ten minute interview with filmmaker/critic Stig Bjorkman who made a documentary on von Trier back in 1997 discusses the documentary but also where von Trier was at in his career when making the film. Bjorkman reveals many of these changes while making comparisons to Ingmar Bergman in the way both men were comfortable on a film set as well as have ideas that were similar visually. Bjorkman also talked about what von Trier was doing before this film in directing actors and what changed when he did this film which showcased him being more comfortable with them.
The seventeen-minute interview with Emily Watson has the actress talking about her experience making the film as it was the first film she had ever done. She was a theatre actress before the film as she admits to having very little knowledge about cinema. She talks fondly about von Trier, Stellan Skarsgard, and Katrin Cartlidge who were great help to her while Watson admitted that the film sort of mirrored her own life as she was living in a very religious community where she was cast out due to accepting the role for this film. Watson also talked about the character of Bess and what she felt she was going through while admitting her initial reaction to the film was negative until Cannes where she realized how extreme the reactions where as she looks back at the film very fondly as it’s one of the finest interviews for the DVD/Blu-Ray’s special features.
The thirteen-minute interview with Stellan Skarsgard has the actor talking about his collaboration with von Trier and how he got the part as he had been wanting to work with von Trier for years. Skarsgard also discusses many of the themes of the film as well as Watson’s performance and the many claims about von Trier being criticized as a misogynist. Skarsgard also talks about von Trier’s approach to actors in the way he wanted to them to be loose and make mistakes as it is one of the reasons why he continuously works with von Trier. A two-minute interview with Adrian Rawlins from 2004 has the actor talking about working with von Trier and why he enjoyed it as it had a sense of looseness as well as the need to improvise which something Rawlins enjoyed as opposed to what he usually does for British television.
A two-minute audition clip from Emily Watson features a commentary track from von Trier as the audition showcases not just the kind of naturalism and energy that Watson would put into the audition but also the reasons into why she was right for the role. The commentary track by von Trier, Mantle, and Refn talk about the audition and what impressed von Trier as he stated that something about Watson being barefooted that intrigued him and realized that she was right for the part.
Seven minutes of two deleted scenes and five minutes of two extended scenes are featured with optional commentary by von Trier, Mantle, and Refn as the two deleted scenes include a conversation between Jan and his friend Terry in the hospital and a meeting between Bess and Dr. Richardson just after she escaped from the police. The extended scenes include an extended conversation between Bess and Dodo in the mountains and the other is where Bess calls to her mother to open the door. In the commentary, von Trier revealed that the reasons the scenes were cut either due to the fact that he didn’t like the performances in the extended moments or in the deleted scenes as well as felt they didn’t fit in with the rest of the film.
A two-minute deleted clip featuring the late Katrin Cartlidge serves as a tribute to her which is a scene where Bess, Bess’ mother, and Dodo are in church during a service where Bess asks Dodo about Jan. It’s essentially an outtake where Cartlidge tries to hold her composure but it ends up being very funny which is fitting to the kind of talent that she is. A seventeen-second promotional clip for the 1996 Cannes Film Festival has von Trier revealing that he will not be showing any clips of the film but rather have the people at Cannes see the film as a whole as it is very funny.
The DVD/Blu-Ray set also features a booklet that features two pieces of text relating to the film. The first is an essay entitled Breaking the Rules by film critic/historian David Sterritt. The essay plays into where von Trier’s career was before and after he made the film but also into many of aspects of the story. Especially in some of the religious context and why would someone like Jan be intrigued by someone as naïve and as innocent as Bess. It also play into the element of fantasy vs. reality where the world Jan comes from is reality as his encounter with the community Bess lives in is an entirely different world where he comes from. The second piece of text in the booklet is an excerpt from Stig Bjorkman’s 1999 book von Trier on von Trier where Bjorkman interviews the director about the film. In the interview, von Trier talks about many of the themes of the film and some of the technical aspects of the film. He also talked about the origins of the film and why it was made in this way rather than in a conventional thing. It’s a fascinating interview about where von Trier was at the time as well as why the film is so revered.
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Breaking the Waves is an enchanting but provocative film from Lars von Trier featuring Emily Watson’s exhilarating performance. For anyone interested in the works of von Trier will find this as the best place to start since it definitely his most revered film. For fans of Emily Watson, whose career has flourished since this film, this remains her best performance of her career. While it’s not an easy film to watch since it dwells into elements of melodrama with a lot of graphic material. It is a film that challenges the conventions of melodrama as well as stripping down the aesthetics of traditional cinema. In the end, Breaking the Waves is Lars von Trier’s masterpiece that breaks down all barriers of what cinema is and could be.
Lars von Trier Films: The Element of Crime - Epidemic - Medea - Europa - The Kingdom I - The Kingdom II - Dogme #2: Idioterne - Dancer in the Dark - The Five Obstructions - Dogville - Manderlay - The Boss of It All - Antichrist - Melancholia - Nymphomaniac
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