Every time I watch a movie by Lars von Trier, I begin to hope that maybe it will help me understand him more. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one ever truly will. Enough about that, however. Today I’m going to be looking at a very important movie in von Trier’s career, his 1996 film Breaking the Waves. If it wasn’t for this movie, Lars von Trier would not be the internationally acclaimed film maker that he is today and it also allowed him to explore with techniques that he never worked with before. All that aside, while Dogville is my favorite of his movie, Breaking the Waves might be his masterpiece.
In a small town in rural Scotland, Bess McNeil (Emily Watson), a mentally ill woman dedicated to her strict church, meets and falls in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oilman who works on a rig off the coast. The two quickly get married and spend their first days together in a state of marital bliss. Eventually, Jan has to go back to the oil rig which leaves Bess devastated. She prays that God will send Jan back to her, and her prayers seem to be answered with the news that he’s coming home. What Bess didn’t know was the accident Jan was in the middle of the left him paralyzed from the neck down. Bess feels an overwhelming amount of guilt for this, thinking this is God’s way of punishing her, and will do anything to help Jan feel better. When Jan makes the request that she go out and find a man to sleep with so he can feel that connection again, Bess takes the request to the extreme which has extreme consequences with the people of the village.
It’s interesting to note that a year before this movie was made, Lars von Trier and fellow director Thomas Vinterberg created the “Dogme 95 Manifesto.” What this was was a set of rules created by von Trier and Vinterberg that they believed would create the purest and most authentic film possible. There are strange rules like the film has to be in color, shot on a hand held camera, and the banning of using any type of filters. In my opinion, it’s all a bit much. Breaking the Waves can’t technically be called a Dogme 95 film because it does break rules about sound and the director being credited, but the movie is shot on a hand held camera with what seems to be mostly natural lighting. This was a huge stylistic change for von Trier, especially since his earlier movies like Element of Crime and Europa are so heavily stylized. This is more really the only way a story like Breaking the Waves can be told, so it was a bold shift in style that should be respected.
When it comes to love stories in film, it’s very easy to mess it up. If you look at most romantic comedies, there’s really nothing to the love that you see in the movies. It’s the most superficial type of romance you can see. What I love about film makers like Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers is that they all seem very confused by love while also still being a part of it. That is what keeps the love story in Breaking the Waves feel so authentic and ultimately tragic. This film is absolutely devastating, but the relationship between Bess and Jan is very powerful and beautiful in a weird kind of way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a very unique movie with characters and situations and relationships that feel very fresh and real, sometimes disturbingly so.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie without dedicating a chunk of this review to Emily Watson. Lars von Trier’s movies aren’t known for their stellar performances, sometimes due to his awkward writing, but Emily Watson kills it in this movie. Bess is probably the most fully realized of all his characters and Watson taps into something deep here. I haven’t really seen Emily Watson in too much stuff so I never really had an opinion on her. After seeing her in Breaking the Waves, however, I now see just how powerful an actor she really is. Bess is a wonderful character and Watson plays her absolutely perfect.
Breaking the Waves is a truly magnificent movie that is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Lars von Trier has become one of my favorite film makers for a reason, and the reason is that he isn’t afraid to tackle new or taboo subjects using a variety of techniques. This is one of his more down to earth movies, but it still has that other worldly von Trierian quality that we’ve all come to expect with his movies. Simply put, Breaking the Waves is his masterpiece.