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Breaking the Waves

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Breaking the Waves

Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard
Director: Lars Von Trier
Rated: R
RunTime: 159 Minutes
Release Date: November 1996
Genres: Drama, Foreign

*Also starring: Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Adrian Rawlins, Sandra Voe, Udo Kier, Mikkel Gaup, Roef Ragas, Phil McCall

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
4 stars out of 4

Great movies shake you up. They make demands on you, challenge your beliefs, force you to look at things through another person's eyes. "Breaking The Waves," the first English-language film from Danish director Lars von Trier, is transcendent filmmaking. Using a tragic love story as his framework, Von Trier takes an unflinching look at the chasm between the rational and the spiritual sides of our lives. A haunting, brutal fairy tale, this masterfully detailed character study is uncompromising and emotionally exhausting. It's a great movie.

Set in the early 70's, the North Sea oil boom brings outsiders to a remote Scottish community on the Isle Of Skye. Bess (Emily Watson,) a "simple-minded" local, meets and falls in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard,) a Norwegian oil-rigger. Their impending marriage disturbs the religious community, a group of Calvinists whose severe fundamentalism makes the Amish seem like anarcists by comparison. Bess' determination wins out, though, and life with her new husband becomes a blissful journey of personal and sexual discovery for the naive young woman.

Eventually, Jan has to return to the rigs, leaving a devastated Bess begging God to bring her husband home. When an industrial accident sends Jan back, paralyzed from the neck down, Bess is convinced the disaster was caused by her prayers. She stays by her husband's side, acutely depressed and desperate to atone. Then, under the influence of drugs and despair, Jan makes an startling request of his wife that sends her spinning madly on a frenzied and shocking quest of self-sacrifice in the name of love.

In lesser hands, this sort of story could easily have been presented as simple melodrama. Von Trier's vision, however, is far more expansive. Using a jittery, hand-held camera, he creates a feeling of immediacy. The grainy close-ups are intensely personal, giving the movie the look of a documentary. At the same time, he uses extended shots of idyllic psychedelic landscapes to divide the film into chapters, underlining the romantic side of the story.

"Breaking The Waves" is populated by a host of memorable individuals, but the remarkable character of Bess is the center of the film. Because she is "not right in the head," her family treats her with benign condescension. Jan, however, views her as a miracle, and his wife blossoms in this new phase of her life. As Bess, Emily Watson gives a breathtaking, remarkably evocative performance. Shortly after their wedding, Jan lies naked in front of his bride. Bess, a virgin who most likely has never seen a nude man before, studies his body carefully. In a matter of seconds, her face registers surprise, amusement, fear, awe and lust. It's a wonderful scene and a tour de force for Watson.

Bess is an avid churchgoer, but her approach is wildly different from that of the righteous townsfolk. They trudge through their days with grim faces. For them, life is endurance, a dour investment for an eventual payoff in the hereafter. Bess, however, is full of wonder, doubt, joy and fear. She talks with God routinely, working through dilemmas by verbalizing both sides of the conversation, using a childlike voice for herself and a stern one for God. Again, Watson plays these scenes superbly, providing delicate shades of character without overdoing it.

As Bess' spiritual guilt increases, and her actions become more desperate and erratic, you may think you have her, and the whole movie, figured out. I certainly did. But, at the last moment, von Trier throws in an amazing and totally unexpected scene. I won't elaborate, except to say you will leave the theater reevaluating everything you thought during the film's 156 minutes. The scene is an epiphany for a film that was already stunning. Von Trier refers to "Breaking The Waves" as "undismissable." He is absolutely right.

Copyright 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott

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