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
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