Review: Breaking the Waves

Reviews are going to become more frequent here at Southern Vision. I have a huge load of them stored on my computer which I’ve written over the course of the past two years that I’m very gradually editing and posting onto the site so I can get on with it and stop worrying with them. From now on, there should be about four or five reviews (usually of completely random films) each week, and the rest of the stuff will be the usual material – lists, thoughts, information, you know… stuff. I’m going to make the reviews of films in no particular order, so you don’t get stuck with a whole bunch of stuff from a certain director. There are many movies out there which so few of my colleagues and friends have seen but which I simply love, including this week’s review of the 1995 Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves.

I recently asked a group of colleagues, friends and acquaintences, what is the first film that pops into your mind when you hear the name Lars von Trier? Of the sixteen I surveyed, four said Dancer in the Dark, three said Dogville, three said Antichrist, two said The Idiots, two said Kingdom, and the other two said Melancholia. Stunningly, none said Breaking the Waves, which is not only the film that pops into my head when I hear his name, but in my honest opinion, von Trier’s best film altogether. I only saw it three weeks ago, and if you’d asked me what my favourite was before then, it would’ve been a conflicted tie between Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and The Idiots. But those films all seem distant and forgettable when compared with this wonderful, uplifting, darkly beautiful film.

Emily Watson gives a performance here that had me damn well close to the edge of my seat, literally, and one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. I recently mentioned that I would’ve picked her over Frances McDormand for the Oscar in 1996, a statement which turned a few heads, and I even issued a poll to see who the real winner should’ve been, although the results so far are tied (vote now to advance the score, before I close the poll!).

Her earthshattering performance as the naive, fragile young Bess MacNeill is both beautiful and painful to watch. She marries an oilman, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), only to be heartbroken when he is crippled and paralysed in a terrible incident on a ship. He survives, and convinces her in a dubious action, to continue their passionate sexual relations through other men, and report her adventures back to him and thus keep the active sexual spark of their relationship alive in some manner. The consequences are simultaneously comic, horrific and disastrous.

All this is beautifully shot in a style that von Trier would return to with Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay particularly. He documents the events in a casual, yet emotionally evocative handheld fashion. But the film’s excellence and what makes it exceptionally powerful (and this is notable in all of his films) is that the film’s fate generally lies within the characters. Von Trier’s films are not artworks or paintings, but character studies.

Bess MacNeill is sexually unexperienced. She is a virgin when she marries Jan, and loses her virginity in a bathroom as the two have rough sex fully clothed, still in their wedding clothes. MacNeill is naive, and Jan sees just how easily he can take advantage of this. But at the beginning of their marriage, their relations are strictly sexual and emotional, and there seems to be no trouble for either one of them.

We know Bess is fragile, but it is not until Jan is taken away in a helicopter to do his job that we see how affected she is. She screams and cries relentlessly even as he reassures her he will be back soon. Seeing your spouse taken away in a helicopter simply to go and do their job temporarily for a few weeks would normally be only a small obstacle for their significant other. But for Bess, it is torture. She counts the days, the minutes, probably even the seconds until he returns.

When the aforementioned accident occurs, you can imagine her reaction. It is terrible, but she doesn’t care about the details, she only has one question: “Is he going to die?” Nothing else matters.

We can see from this point that the situation is likely to get worse, and we understand that we must prepare ourselves for the serious hardships ahead, but looking into the innocent Watson’s sweet face, it kills us as these awful events pacingly occur. And it just gets worse and worse.

In one of the most degrading scenes (although von Trier plays it with a subtle hint of dark comedy), Bess slips onto a bus and sits at the back next to an elderly gentlement. Without saying a word, she slips her hand into his pants and masturbates him. No one else notices, and neither of them say anything. Bess later recalls this and other similar events to Jan, who listens avidly but is increasingly convinced that what he’s doing is wrong.

That’s about as much I think I should give away about the plot. It’s a typical Von Trier movie, with the dreariness and sadness and woe, the conflicted reviews and strange attitudes given by critics, and there will be praise and there will be hatred, but what separates Breaking the Waves from all other Von Trier films is the brightness in the ending. A person fairly exprienced with his movies would know that his endings are usually depressing, and annoyingly sadistic, but here… here we’re free. There is happiness in it–certainly not a lot–but still, happiness. It seemed to be a departure for Trier, however, considering the lack of happiness in the endings of his subsequent films, but we’ll always have this to remember him by when he goes.

My Rating:

4.5/5 Von Trier’s

Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?:

About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on June 30, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. A stunning film, but I found it really, really upsetting too. I watched it years ago and haven’t plucked up the courage to watch it again. Good review.


    • Thanks. It’s probably the most accessible of Lars Von Trier’s movies but it is tremendously saddening. In a beautiful way.

  2. First of all, you sound like you have some good colleagues/friends/acquaintances. If I were to say Lars von Trier they’d all be like ‘who the hell is that?’ Especially the colleagues…and I work in a fucking video store.

    Anyway, the movie. I’m sure I’ll be more affected by it come the morning (as I usually do). But wow. Thank you, Tyler, for recommending it. This will definitely be getting a spot in my top 100 when I revamp the list.

    God, Emily Watson was amazing in this movie. I felt so sorry for her character and how she was so easily persuaded to do things. But the one thing that really pissed me off was at the end when all of those church people said that she deserved to go to hell. I had a few tears of anger at that point.

    What I also liked was how Jan was at the end…I thought he didn’t really care about Bess that much but he truly did. Well, that’s what I got out of the end, anyway.

    I must say, I really liked the way von Trier made this – his directorial style is quite interesting and just how I like it. What movie of his do you recommend that I go to next? (with the exception of Melancholia, which I’m seeing next Friday)

    Again, thanks for the recommendation, what a stunning film.

    • Glad you enjoyed it.

      This film is actually the first in a trilogy from Von Trier, followed by The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark. I think it’s a little too soon for you to go rushing into The Idiots, but you’d really like Dancer in the Dark. Another one I’d recommend is Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman; that’s my second favourite Von Trier movie after this one. So yeah, either Dancer in the Dark or Dogville. Preferably both. Once you see those (and if you like them, which I can’t guarantee), then you’re ready to move on to darker stuff like The Idiots and Antichrist.

  3. There’s a lot I like(d) about this film–including my first-ever glimpse of both Stellan Skarsgard and the radiant Emily Watson–but few shots in the history of film make me wince as much as the one near the very end, with the bells ringing in the sky. It’s always struck me as a flaccid, embarrassingly sentimental gesture, straight out of a 1940s tearjerker–a truly puzzling miscalculation in an otherwise thoughtful, gritty film. I gave Dogville about half an hour and then threw my hands up. I’m truly curious about Antichrist, however, which I’ve yet to see. Frankly, I’m suspect of any filmmaker who subscribes to any sort of “manifesto.” I think I have some idea of where von Trier is coming from with the infamous Dogme 95, yet the conscious limitations he imposes upon himself strike me as (ironically) artificial, a sort of pose, rather than a forceful, integral part of a unified aesthetic. In my experience as a viewer, a great director ever expands his technical repertoire, using whatever resources (including novel and “artificial” means) at his disposal to broaden and deepen his vision and to achieve the result it requires. (Beethoven certainly modified and evolved the style of his piano music, for example, expressly to take advantage of the much superior instruments that were being developed; and try to imagine Kubrick or Scorsese sacrificing their Steadicam for the sake of “verity!”) The unfortunate flip side, of course, is that for scores of filmmakers–I’m looking at you, Cameron–technology seems to be the end rather than the means, no matter what they claim.

    • You raise an interesting point about the way directors use technology, and I agree.

      I’m afraid I’m one of those suckers who loved the bells at the end of this movie. I’m sorry, but I just did. It worked because I wasn’t expecting it, and although there is an element of cheese involved, I still thought it was nice.

      Dogville is definitely worth sitting through to the end; it’s gloriously bloody, nihilistic ending is very strong and although some dislike it, I think it works because it’s Von Trier. Have you read my recent post about how he likes to fuck with the viewer? I think that explains why he does so many questionable things in his movies.

  4. Excellent review, I definately need to watch this film now I have read your informative and descriptive analysis.

  5. I will definately watch it. You should check out my moview reviews when you get the chance. I have reviewed quite a few old movies.

  6. I watched this the other day and I have to say that Watson was amazing. The moment that really got me was when Bess’s mother refuses to let her in and Bess begins to cry. Also when she is disowned by the village. Powerful stuff

  7. Yes! Finally something about county water.

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