Breaking the Waves

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Lars Von Trier

REVIEWED: 01-22-97

Sex and religion, being touchy subjects for mainstream consumption, have been prime fodder for art house cinema since the institution began. Danish director Lars Von Trier's latest film Breaking the Waves serves up healthy doses of both and has already landed him on the top spot in many of last year's top 10 lists.

Breaking the Waves is Von Trier's first English-language effort and, subsequently, his most mainstream film. But that isn't to say he's compromised anything in this challenging and offbeat exercise. Von Trier's previous films (Element of Crime, Zentropa and last year's wild epic The Kingdom) were all marked by an aggressive camera style and a triumph of trippy visual over grounded narrative. The emphasis now is on establishing a solid storyline, realistic characters and honest emotions. Bess (British stage actress Emily Watson) is a seemingly naive young resident of an isolated Scottish coastal village circa 1970. When Bess decides to marry a "worldly-wise" oil rig worker from outside the village, she earns the disapproval of her stern Calvinist community. Despite her church's disapproval of dancing, music, drink and basically anything nonreligious, Bess is considered a pure and blessed child of God. Surely this marriage is the swiftest path to perdition. For a time, Bess and her husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) live an idyllic and passionate life. The virginal Bess takes to the ways of married flesh like an old hand. The wide-eyed Watson bestows Bess with a perfect balance of innocence, curiosity and budding sexual desire. But all too soon Jan must return to his job on the oil rig, and the cracks in Bess' perfect facade begin to widen.

Bess, it seems, spent time in a mental hospital following the death of her beloved brother. She often holds conversations with God--conversations that she herself answers. At best, her grasp on reality is tenuous. At worst, she has a full-on split personality. That, or she's actually talking to God. ... Anyway, Bess doesn't adjust very well to life without her husband. Despite help from her overprotective sister-in-law, Bess verges on a nervous breakdown. During one of her many conversations with the Heavenly Host, Bess begs God to "send Jan home." Soon after, Jan is involved in a major industrial accident and is sent home ... as a paraplegic. Here's where things get odd. Jan wants his wife to have a "normal" life, so he begs her to take a lover. Bess, in her warped state of mind, decides that making love to other men is the only thing that will save her injured husband. Much to the chagrin of her sour-faced neighbors, Bess sets about saving her husband in earnest, casting concerns about her own health and safety to the wind.

Von Trier has created a (sure to be) controversial parable about the power of love and the strength of religious convictions. Many critics have called Bess a "Christ-like" figure, but her life much more closely mirrors the suffering of some bizarre saint. While she aspires to be some Joan of Arc kind of martyr, the lustful Bess is an odd candidate for canonization. She's got the trials and tribulations down pat, though. Watching this film is like going through the spin cycle of some enormous emotional washing machine. Von Trier himself has described it as "melodrama's answer to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." He's not far off the mark.

Tempestuous emotions aside, Breaking the Waves' most dynamic element is its visual savvy. The entire film is shot with a handheld camera, giving--instead of the expected rugged "documentary" feel--a much more intimate kind of realism. The handheld camera brings viewers much more "into the face" of the characters. It also allows the actors a greater freedom of movement, with much less formal choreography. The movie itself is divided into chapters. Each chapter is bookended by a series of postcard-like images that is sure to linger in every viewer's mind. The images, mostly uninhabited northern landscapes, are stunning. Though largely static, waves roll, clouds shift, colors change--a placid contrast to the stormy sentiment going on within these environs. It's one of the neatest visual tricks in ages. Kudos to cinematographer Robby Muller (already well-known for his work with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch).

Von Trier is one of those directors whose films haunt viewers for days, weeks, even months after seeing them. Breaking the Waves is no exception. You won't easily shake this earthy and dynamic study in love, lust and miracles out of your head.

--Devin D. O'Leary

Other Films by Lars Von Trier
The Kingdom

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