I Believe in the Power of Good, I Believe in the State of Love
If one was to summarize the career of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier in two different spectrums, it would be in before and after Breaking the Waves. Before making this 1996 film, von Trier was making technically-proficient films for a trilogy of Europe’s decline as well as experimental TV projects. After Breaking the Waves, von Trier would favor a more looser filmmaking style before heading into strange experiments with 2003’s Dogville and later taking the two filmmaking styles into one for 2009’s Antichrist and his most recent film Melancholia. Breaking the Waves however, would be a turning point for the Danish enfant terrible as the film was both an artistic and personal achievement. At the same time, it would be the film that would give him more widespread attention that put him as one of the world’s best filmmaker.
Breaking the Waves is the story of a young Scottish woman named Bess who marries a Swedish oil rigger named Jan in the early 1970s at a her very religious town. When Jan leaves for work, the desperate Bess prays to God for his return only for him to come back paralyzed as he later asks Bess to have sex with other men so she can describe it to him as if they were making love. Yet, Bess’ yearning to please Jan would take a toll on her as Jan starts to get worse where she would ultimately make the biggest sacrifice of her life.
The film came in at a time when von Trier’s own personal and professional life was in disarray in the early 1990s after learning from his mother on her deathbed that the man who helped raise him was not his father. The news about his stepfather and later meeting his real father would have a profound effect on von Trier’s life that is often surrounded by his own phobias including fear of flying. The personal turmoil of the news would only worsen when his 1991 film Europa failed to win the Palme D’or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival despite getting lots of acclaim and other awards. In turn, von Trier gave the festival jury and its president Roman Polanski the finger as an act of defiance.
A year later, von Trier formed Zentropa Entertainment with Peter Aalbaek Jensen to produce films for von Trier and emerging Danish filmmakers that included Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig, and Thomas Vinterberg. At the same time, von Trier created a TV miniseries project called Riget (The Kingdom) as he co-directed the project with Morten Arnfred in 1994 and 1997. Yet, the news about his real father still haunted him and wanting to disconnect himself from his stepfather forced von Trier to convert to Catholicism. This new conversion would help impact von Trier’s own idea towards filmmaking where he would announce the Dogme 95 movement at a Parisian conference celebrating cinema.
Dogme 95 was an idea in filmmaking where it would strip down the commercial elements of filmmaking back to basics. No props were used as everything had to be found on location as well as natural sound captured on film. All cameras had to be hand-held and used with available light along with being in color and no optical filters. Everything had to be filmed on location with no superficial actions such as weapons as well as the fact that it can’t be defined into a genre. The guideline that von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg used for this movement would influence von Trier for his next film as he wanted to go for cinematic honesty in his idea for Breaking the Waves.
With this approach, von Trier brought in Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller for help with the film’s visual look. Muller was famous for his work with German director Wim Wenders while also shooting some films for the American indie auteur Jim Jarmusch. The two chose a grainy yet dream-like look to the film as it is shot mostly with a hand-held camera to emphasize a look as if it was a homemade film. With a crew that included editor Anders Refn, the father of another renowned Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, production designer Karl Juliusson, costume designer Manon Rasmussen, sound designer Per Streit, and von Trier’s co-director of The Kingdom TV mini-series in Morten Arnfred. All von Trier needed was the casting.
With a cast that included two of von Trier’s regulars in Jean-Marc Barr as Jan’s friend Terry and Udo Kier as a sadistic sailor Bess would meet late in the film. The cast also included acclaimed Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard for the role of Jan while the rest of the cast was made up of British actors that von Trier needed as he would shoot many of the film’s exteriors in Scotland. Among the British actors he cast were Sandra Voe as Bess’ mother, Adrian Rawlins as the sympathetic Dr. Richardson, and in the role of Bess’ sister-in-law, Katrin Cartlidge was cast.
The role of Bess would be a hard find as Helena Bohnam Carter was initially cast but dropped out due to the sexual content of the film while American actress Melanie Griffith was also considered. It would be through luck when Lars von Trier finally found his Bess in an unknown British theatrical actress in Emily Watson. Watson was already a fixture in the British theatrical scene while she also had acted in a TV movie in 1994. This decision seemed shocking as Watson had never acted in film as she accepted the role that would eventually make her into one of the acclaimed actresses of her time.
Throughout the entirety of the film, there’s chapter breaks based on the artwork of Pers Kirkesby which emphasize the locations and the world that Bess lives in as there’s a dreamy visual quality to the chapter breaks as it’s often accompanied by a rock song from the 1960s and the 1970s. Among the tracks von Trier used for the film, he cultivated a soundtrack that included Mott the Hoople, Python Lee Jackson featuring Rod Stewart, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Leonard Cohen, Elton John, Deep Purple, and (in the theatrical version of the film) David Bowie plus songs by T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, and Roxy Music played in the film including a cover of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Siciliana - Sonata BWV n. 1031 for the final credits of the film.
The film opens with Bess at a church talking to church leaders about marrying Jan, an outsider from Sweden, as these church leaders that include a priest (Jonathan Hackett) and her grandfather (Phil McCall) reluctantly give Bess their blessing. Jan eventually arrives via helicopter with his friends as the wedding happens along with a blissful ceremony as Bess’ sister-in-law Dodo gives a moving speech about how great Bess is and her hopes that Jan can make her happy. The reception scene which includes a brief scene of Jan and Bess consummating their marriage while Jan’s friend Terry (Jean-Marc Barr) has a drink with one of the religious leader who in turns finishes his drink and squeezes the glass with his bare hands.
All of this happens as it ends the first of seven chapters (plus the epilogue) that features a brief mention of what will happen. The first says Bess Gets Married while the second is Life with Jan as they’re all each accompanied by the artwork of Pers Kirkesby which features movements and little objects. The little titles would reveal moments of Bess’ progression as a woman trying to help the man that she loves. In its second chapter, the film explores Bess’ blissful life with Jan as there is clearly a sense of wonderment and innocence in Bess as she is a childlike woman who hasn’t experienced much. The way von Trier portrays sex and nudity for this portion of the film is done with a bit of humor but also curiosity from Bess’ point of view. There is nothing really graphic but it emphasizes love at its purest form.
Just as Bess’ life with Jan seems blissful, he has to return to the oil rig to work as she is devastated that he has to leave. While Jan would try to cheer her up by buying her a new dress, it’s not enough for Bess to deal with Jan’s departure as the two call each other. While he is set to return, a friend of Jan’s return from an accident making Bess more desperate as she prays for God for his return. Jan does return but is paralyzed following an accident as Bess feels responsible. Dr. Richardson reveals that even though Jan will be OK, it will take a lot of work for him to walk again. With Dodo’s help and care at their home, things seem fine until Jan asks Bess to sleep with other men so he can believe that he is still making love to her. At first, Bess is distraught and refuses to only to give in once Jan returns to the hospital.
The first four chapters in the film all reflect Bess’ development of an innocent yet naïve woman who has no idea how to be or act like an adult. Yet, that could be one of the reasons why Jan is so attracted to her and why he enjoys being around her. While having her wanting to have sex with other men so he can pretend that he’s doing might seem like a sick idea and also degrading for Bess. It’s only because he loves her so much that he wants her to imagine that nothing has changed which only brings a lot of doubt to Bess as she tries to seduce Dr. Richardson in the middle of the film by lying on his bed naked. When Bess finally gives a strange man in a bus a hand job, she’s disgusted but it manages to help Jan’s health. Bess realizes that what Jan asks is helping him though Jan feels guilty of what he’s putting Bess through.
Many will claim that Bess is degrading herself by wearing racy clothing and eventually becoming a prostitute. There is something to that in the way von Trier portrays women as he’s often accused of misogyny. Yet, that is often something von Trier has always been accused of as his follow-ups in his Golden Hearts trilogy follow-ups in Idioterne and Dancer in the Dark show women being put into horrific situations. There’s an argument for that although von Trier isn’t a misogynist but someone who respects women and the actresses who work with him. That controversy would later be fueled by the theme of gynocide for his 2009 film Antichrist in which Willem Dafoe’s character discover that his wife’s thesis has her claiming that all women are evil. It’s an argument that continues though that’s not what von Trier is doing to Bess as she would go on a much dangerous path where she would encounter a sadistic sailor, played by Udo Kier.
While Bess is warned not to go to that ship full of sailors, she decides to go as an act of defiance. Notably as she is seen as mentally ill by Dr. Richardson, Dodo, and Bess’ mother after learning what she’s been doing for Jan. What Bess would see is part of her unraveling as she returns from the ship abused as she’s been shunned by her religious community and treated with scorn by the local children. Dodo would later find Bess lying on the ground as she helps her where Bess would reveal something that she thinks will save Jan as she asks Dodo to pray. Dodo does as what would happen is Bess making the ultimate sacrifice to save Jan. The outcome would be tragic with all, with the exception of the religious leaders, feeling guilty as Dodo later defies the religious leaders for what they say about Bess.
While the film’s ending is an ambiguous, it alludes to what Jan asked the priest early in the film. There, he and his friends in the oil well see something in the form of a miracle up in the sky. It is von Trier’s version of a happy ending though his films never had happy endings despite what von Trier says.
There’s a lot that can be said into why the film has been so revered as well as so reviled by both critics and audience. Robby Mueller’s grainy cinematography is among one of the film’s highlights as it has a look that makes the film feel like a home movie as if it was shot on super 8 or 16mm film blown-up into 35mm. Part of the reason the film looks the way it did was that the film was transferred from film to video for its editing and then transferred it back to 35mm film. It’s part of von Trier’s fascination with wanting to do something new as he aimed for his idea of cinematic honesty in relation to the Dogme 95 movement.
While von Trier has always been known for assembling a great cast, he definitely creates something that is truly untouchable in comparison to the cast he would create for his later films. Part of what makes von Trier someone that actresses want to work with is for the performances he is able to get for actresses like Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, and more recently Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Yet, none of them could compare to what Emily Watson did in the role of Bess.
Watson’s performance is truly one-of-a-kind and probably the best debut performance on film. Waston exudes not just the innocence of Bess but also the anguish of her character. The way Watson speaks the voice of God definitely shows what kind of range she can put as she is also unafraid to be fully nude. It’s something not a lot of actresses are willing to do, especially if it’s their film debut. This film would be the start of what is certainly a revered and acclaimed career for Emily Watson who continues to work steadily as she’s worked with such great filmmakers as Robert Altman, Alan Parker, Alan Rudolph, Charlie Kaufman, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many others.
The film premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival as it was released to a great reception. Despite not winning the Palme D’or as he lost to Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, von Trier was able to scoop up the second place Grand Jury prize. Still, the film would walk away with several awards from the European Film Awards along with several honors for Emily Watson including an Oscar nomination. A few years later during a best of decade special on Roger Ebert’s TV program, Martin Scorsese was a guest as both put the film in the list as one of the best films of the 1990s.
Breaking the Waves remains as one of the most divisive films of the last 20 years. Yet, that’s one of the reasons why there’s a group of people that still likes to talk about it because there’s no film like it. It’s a film made by a filmmaker who was searching for something honest in a cinematic landscape that is often surrounded by explosive visual effects or some kind of gimmick to carry the film. This is the film that put Lars von Trier as among one of the greatest filmmakers working today. Breaking the Waves is the kind of film that will leave anyone watching filled with anguish, heartbreak, or have some kind of spiritual revelation. That is one of the reasons why it’s a film that gets people talking about it as it remains as one of Lars von Trier’s great achievements in film.
© thevoid99 2011
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