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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 Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

"I thank you for the greatest gift of all - love. I thank you for Jan (pronounced Yah'n)" says newlywed Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) to her God. Bess lives on the desolate Isle of Skye in Scotland, and she is a member of a very strict Calvinist church. Thus begins a tragic story of faith and love by Danish director Lars Von Trier.

Trier's first English language film and his first love story is BREAKING THE WAVES. Trier is an intense director whom you may remember from his film EUROPA. People in Denmark will remember him for his 1994 TV miniseries "The Kingdom" since as the press kit said, the streets were empty when it was playing. It was the hottest show ever on Danish television.

I could not set up the film better than the quote from actor Stellan Skarsgaard (THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) who plays Bess's outsider husband Jan. He said of the film that "it's melodrama's answer to INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE because the emotions are constantly given free rein." The epic length and the risk taking emotional scenes by Emily Watson got the film the Grand Jury Prize this year at the Cannes Film Festival.

"We do not need bells in our church to worship God," says The Minister (Jonathan Hackett). This is a church that views seriousness and rules as a virtue and frivolity and fun as a sin. "I would say to you that if there is one of these commandments you do not love and do not obey, you have no business at the Lord's table," preaches The Minister. When the men (women are not allowed) bury people they can and do pronounce, "for your sins you are confined to hell," so the sermons are taken quite literally by the congregation. The church elders rule the community and are not to be taken lightly. Bess loves her god and her church and strives to be faithful to them both. Many scenes have her in the church alone with her angry God talking back to her through her voice.

The acting is incredibly beautifully all around, but none is in the same league as that of first time screen actress Watson. Her naivete, her mother (Sandra Voe) calls her "a feeble girl," places her in incredibly vulnerable situations. Through her innocence she goes from intense physical and emotional love down to the depths of depravity and insanity. Through it she has incredible faith in her husband and her God, but it is this very faith that becomes her undoing.

As the show starts, the sex is so intense and frequent, I began to wonder if this was going to be a low budget and more realistic NINE 1/2 WEEKS. Until Jan has to go back for another long stint on the oil drilling rig, they are one of the most joyous young couples you are likely to meet. Of the many scenes of special beauty, my favorite was when virginal Bess sees her husband naked for the first time. Looking on a his male nudity puts her into a state of giggles. The human body is kind of funny when you think about it.

Bess becomes so obsessively attached to her husband, that she confesses to him, "everyone says I love you too much." This part of the film is full of simple pleasures and reminds you of all the inherent beauty in the world.

The picture is filmed in sepia by Jean Paul Meurice and Robby Mueller. They use a handheld camera so that the actors can walk all around the set without being confined to playing just in from of the camera. This sounds better than it turns out. Sometimes I thought the title referred to the waves on the screen, and I felt as if I was going to get seasick. My home videos are more stable, and with only a single camera, it was pan here and then pan there resulting in many a sequence being out of focus. At any rate, the sepia color was an effective choice. Before each chapter they have a computer enhanced full color video clip that is reminiscent of a Bierstadt landscape painting. An interesting juxtaposition.

In sharp contrast to the bleak outdoor openness, the drilling rig is a happy, but claustrophobic place to work. The job's physical endurance makes the environment dangerous. As shown in the trailers, Jan is paralyzed in an accident. The scene where Bess gets her friend and nurse Dodo McNeill (excellent actress Katrin Cartlidge from BEFORE THE RAIN and NAKED) to knell down and pray with her outside the operating room will elicit tears in even the toughest movie goers. If you do not empathize with poor Bess throughout the film, then you probably need to have your emotions checked at your next physical. Watson's performance is Oscar quality throughout.

The script by Peter Asmussen, David Pirie, and Lars Von Trier and the direction have such a naturalness that it feels less like a movie that a home video of someone's life. Bess becomes all the shy and innocent women that you have ever known. When Jan is hurt, Bess's brain begins to snap as she explains, "what happened on the rig was my fault. I prayed to God to send him home."

When he regains consciousness, Jan places a single demand on Bess that sends her over the edge trying to fulfill it. I will not give this key plot twist away even if the trailer does. Jan's command is the subject of the entire last half of the film. The very last scene of the picture is something special and not one you will guess so hang in there even if you think your bladder is going to burst.

There is not a bad performance in the show. Besides the actors already mentioned, Jean-Marc Barr plays Jan's friend Terry, Adrian Rawlins plays young and handsome Dr. Richardson, and Udo Kier is a sadistic sailor.

The film was way too long and the camera work drove me crazy, but Emily Watson's performance and her childlike acceptance of faith was something it would be an absolute shame to miss. A brilliant if somewhat flawed picture.

BREAKING THE WAVES runs 2:38. The film is rated R for explicit sex, full male and female frontal nudity, some profanities, one drug usage scene, and some violence. Teenagers should be mature to be able to go. I recommend this touching picture to you and award it ***.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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