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A Controversial Filmmaker’s Career and Motives Re-Examined

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

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