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Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves is the kind of film that makes me proud to be a film-goer and exceeds anything I could have possibly expected from the man who made Element of Crime. That film had some clever experimentation (and so does this one) but this film is the kind that's beauty and power echoes in your mind hours after you've watched it. This is a flabbergasting work of art that portrays a woman's quest to please God and does so with the complexity and emotional power of a Bergman film (not to mention the fact that the film portrays a woman's intense suffering in world sternly ruled by men with the power of a Dreyer film). If von Trier made nothing else of any merit for the rest of his career, if all he did was make marginally interesting film experiments, I wouldn't hesitate to call him a great filmmaker on the soul basis of this film. Anyway, you get the picture The film stars Emily Watson as Bess, a shy and neurotic girl who is filled with joy to be with her new husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard who is exceptional). When Jan is paralyzed after an accident at the oilrig he works in, he is in danger of losing his life. He convinces Bess to see other people and Bess wants nothing more than to make him happy and to prove to God that she loves him. After some disastrous complications, Bess is led to believe that she can please God and save Jan's life by having numerous sexual encounters with strangers in town. This sounds like a grungy tale, but von Trier tells it with such humanism and focus on his themes that we never feel like he is rubbing our faces in drear. And Watson is delightful, frightening, and heartbreaking as a woman who will stop at nothing to please those around her. Her one-sided conversations with God (in which she looks up in the air submissively and pleas and then looks down with a deep voice of wrath and scolds) are both funny and sad, not to mention the fact that they reveal seemingly endless amounts of details about who she is. The film is made with a hand-held camera and a visually stunning solarized style. This style does not make the movie; it just adds richness to each scene in the way it gives each face such shadowy texture. In the end, von Trier seems to believe in God but does not believe in the churches that try to codify what he wants. All of this works because of von Trier's passionate desire to understand how one can please God under horrendous terms; the epilogue, that takes the already-great material to a new level and shows how inspired von Trier is, starts with a moment of sad irony and then leaps to the skies with an image that fills the most atheistic person with questions and the more religiously spiritual people with hope. Here is a film that reaches for the stars and makes it there.
Initially, this story about the marriage of young Scottish woman and a
Scandinavian oil rig worker had my eyes glazing over. I was ready to hit
the eject button about 20 minutes into the movie. But I held in there and
slowly was drawn in to their lives, their environment, and the ghastly
tragedy that confronts them.
Lars von Trier is a very patient storyteller, as well as being an eccentric movie maker. In Breaking the Waves, he slowly, very slowly unfolds his drama. The problem is; you have to pay careful attention, and this can be difficult. Von Trier's style, with its hand-held camera, lack of artificial lighting, grainy photography, and lingering close-ups can try the patience. The movie is also long, clocking in at about 2½ hours. But if you see it through, the final half hour will blow your mind, and you will have seen one of the best (and most emotionally powerful) movies of 1996, maybe even the whole decade.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Director and writer Lars von Trier's 1996 "Breaking the Waves" received
attention worldwide when initially released. Commentary reflected the
degree of polarization this long, engrossing and deeply disturbing Indie
film created. I saw it when it first briefly hit Manhattan theaters and
last night I watched the DVD release, reabsorbed in its
Emily Watson's portrayal as young Bess McNeill is the most powerful performance of a career still in the ascendancy. Bess lives in a small Scottish village by the sea, away from any center of culture or heterogeneity. She has no job and she appears to volunteer her services as a janitor at the church which her family attends. It is the dominating religious, social and - I suspect - political entity in the area.
Bess has one friend, a woman who becomes increasingly important both to her and the story, nurse Dodo McNeill, widowed wife of Bess's brother. (Katrin Cartlidge, a truly gifted and beautiful actress, is Dodo. A tragedy, she died in 2002 of pneumonia barely into her forties.)
The movie begins with Bess asking, apparently, for permission to marry an "outsider." She receives, in church, grudging authorization to wed Jan, a worker on an off-shore oil rig (the always interesting Stellan Skarsgard). We're never told how she met him but the church scene immediately and succinctly conveys the fear and, indeed, near loathing the male religious oligarchs have of anyone entering their closed and tightly controlled community.
Jan and Bess wed in a ceremony followed by a party where some of Jan's hard drinking work pals attend but hardly mingle with the lemonade-sipping locals (there's a very funny chug-a-lug competition that highlights the dividing lines neatly).
Bess is not only a virgin, she's never seen a naked man before. Her initiation into sex is rather a success and her love for Jan deepens as rapidly as her new found lust for vigorous and frequent love-making.
Jan suffers a near fatal accident on the rig and is flown back to hospital. It doesn't take long for the doctors to determine he's permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins) becomes chief physician not only to Jan but to his disconsolate wife who prays for a miraculous recovery while remaining devoted to her husband.
What happens next is the plot twist that has fascinated many and repelled quite a few. Jan, knowing that physical intimacy with Bess is impossible, asks her - no, really implores her - to take on any number of lovers AND report back the details of her trysts. After a hesitant and almost funny start, she complies. As her sex life accelerates any humor evaporates.
The results of the ongoing experiment in vicarious lovemaking for Jan and for Bess, sinking way beyond her depth, are disastrous. She slowly elides into a twisted caricature of the personality envisioned by Jan. Communal rejection is not far off. And this in a community where membership in the church is the sole indicium of civic and personal legitimacy.
Some critics and viewers described Bess as retarded or simple from the beginning. I found her to be naive and inexperienced, the kind of sheltered person for whom marriage to a man of broad experience and unfettered sexuality is boundlessly liberating. Bess's inevitable penance does not stem from any interior failing of her's. It's the "game" urged on by Jan that exposes her to the venomous wrath of religious fundamentalists whose innate need to condemn and consign to hell (literally and volubly) is beyond Jan's imagination. Whether his desire that she engage in sexual escapades really reflected his belief that it would make him feel better or whether this was an evolving pathological caprice on his part (and both views have strong adherents here on IMDb and elsewhere), he did not foresee the resulting debacle.
On several levels von Trier has mirrored, through powerful acting and awesome direction, that small, closed society whose fundamentalist interiority is a microcosm of the hatred that blind, non-humanistic religion often brings (it's easy to see the stern, unsmiling, dogma-obsessed church leader as a modern incarnation of the sixteenth century's John Knox of Edinburgh).
Von Trier won't let Bess escape as her situation worsens. Dr. Richardson and Dodo first ask and then beg her to abandon her self-destructive and now publicly shocking behavior. There is a sense of classical tragedy in the painful unfolding of Bess's mental and physical deterioration. She can't curtail her conduct because of her absolute devotion to Jan and her community can't and won't understand or forgive her.
The resolution is wrenching but also uplifting with the suggestion that Bess's acts reflect good in a pristine sense. It's not meant to be realistic but to deliver, I felt, a needed moral lesson.
"Breaking the Waves" isn't for everyone. It does showcase brilliant acting and direction in a fable that has some very uncompromising arguments about a religious dominance which only concerns itself with a believed afterlife, caring nothing about addressing the pains of living and administering to its sufferers compassionately.
This is the story about love. Everyday we experience this breathtaking
emotion with both inanimate objects and with other souls. It is when we
finally find true love that nothing else in the world seems worthy or
good. We work as hard as we can to continue this warmth that we feel in
our hearts when true love exists, and sometimes that means going to a
level we never thought imaginable.
That is the central theme of Lars von Trier's epic, Breaking the Waves. Love has no boundaries as we watch Bess do everything possible (and more) to keep the relationship with her husband together during the roughest of times. Emily Watson controls the character Bess giving her best performance ever. The emotion and serenity that is felt, not only behind the character of Bess, but also behind Watson's eyes is phenomenal. It is not often that Hollywood is able to capture this sort of raw emotion, but Watson pulled it off with incredible talent.
Outside of Watson's character, there is the story. Lars von Trier does a spectacular job of continually building on the foundation that he has begun.
Watson is his foundation, and Trier builds this amazing world around her. In this film, everything from talking to God to reverberating stories to her husband while he is in the hospital only helps build the story to even higher heights. I will be honest; I shed tears at the end of this film. It will pull at every heart muscle that you have and really make you look at your significant other and truly feel the power of love.
This is a love story, but not like one we have seen in a very long time. I don't think we will see anything similar to this again. It will be hard for Hollywood to emulate such raw talent, groundbreaking direction, and life-changing story.
Thank you Lars von Trier for your imagination and passion for love.
Grade: ***** out of *****
It's a pity that for most people Lars von Trier's involvement with the Dogme group of film makers is the main thing they know about him. Wherever you stand on the Dogme issue (personally I'm all for it as long as they continue to make movies as great as 'Festen' and 'The Idiots'), his brief alliance with the group has overshadowed amazing work like 'Element Of Crime', 'Europa' and 'Breaking The Waves'. 'Breaking The Waves' was made before the Dogme manifesto was formulated, but it can be seen as a step in that direction, with its use of documentary techniques as opposed to the flamboyant and highly stylized approach of von Trier's earlier films. To me the ends justifies the means, and the bottom line is that this is an extraordinary and powerful movie, one of the greatest of the last ten years. The main reason it is so remarkable is because of the devastating performance of Emily Watson, one of the most impressive screen debuts in the history of film. Watson plays Bess McNeill, a naive and odd young woman living in a remote and deeply religious Scottish community. She is so good in this movie she'll leave you speechless! Stellan Skarsgard, a most underrated actor in my opinion,('Insomnia', 'Ronin') plays Bess's husband and is also superb, and the supporting cast includes the late Katrin Cartlidge ('Naked') as Watson's sister-in-law, and von Trier regulars Jean-Marc Barr (almost unrecognizable from his leading role in 'Europa'), as one of Skarsgard's work buddies, and cult legend Udo Kier ('Flesh For Frankenstein', 'The Story Of O') in a cameo as a very nasty piece of work who Bess has the misfortune to encounter. The less you know about this movie the more powerful it will be, and even a jaded cynic like myself was surprised at how effective its spiritual theme was. To me 'Breaking The Waves' is a much better more than von Trier's better known 'Dancer In The Dark', and Watson's performance makes Bjork's look like that of an enthusiastic but not very talented amateur (which of course, is exactly what she is). Highly recommended.
The first time I saw Breaking the Waves, I was astonished that Emily Watson had not acted for the cinema before her turn as Bess McNeill. What she brings to the role of the naive Scottish girl offers a clinic on superlative acting that could humble veterans with ten times the experience. Another thing that makes this film so special is that it never backs away from its vivid and mature examination of love, commitment, and aspects of the metaphysical. I easily class this work as one of the top films of the 1990s. Director Lars von Trier is a true visionary, and the (largely hand-held) cinematography by Robby Muller perfectly defines the tone of the film -- in fact, the theatre where I saw Breaking the Waves posted a disclaimer that warned anyone who suffers from motion or sea-sickness to see the film at their own peril!
"Dogville" is one of my all-time favourite films, and the most
disturbing film I've ever seen. I've wanted to see "Breaking the Waves"
in quite a while, and recently I finally had the chance. Now I can't
say which one is better. What a heartbreaking experience. Emily Watson
had one of the best film debuts ever, and this is probably the most
accomplished female performance I've seen since Julianne Moore in "The
Hours". Actually, if I had to list 3 favourite female performances now,
I'd mention Watson, Moore and Isabelle Huppert in "The Piano Teacher".
Lars von Trier has a special talent to direct women: just remember
Nicole Kidman's and Björk's remarkable performances in "Dogville" and
"Dancer in the Dark", respectively.
"Breaking the Waves" tells the story of the pure Bess McNeill (Watson) and her unconditional love for Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård), who is paralyzed after an accident at the oil-rig he works in. Then, Jan convinces Bess to have sex with other men and tell him the details of the sexual encounters, so he won't "forget" how to do it. Bess is determined to make Jan happy and to prove to God that she loves him, but she soon loses control of her actions. The storyline might sound absurd, but Von Trier isn't a joker and he takes us into a devastating journey. Katrin Cartlidge (1961-2002), an extremely gifted actress ("Naked", "Before the Rain", "Claire Dolan", "Career Girls", "Topsy-Turvy" and "No Man's Land") who died too young, delivers a captivating, discreet supporting performance as Dodo, Bess' loving sister-in-law.
I'd say "Breaking the Waves" and "Dogville" are opposite masterpieces: "Waves" being about love and goodness, "Dogville" being about hatred and evil, among other things, of course (nothing's easy or simple in Von Trier's universe). Both films are extremely dark and hard to watch, but "Waves" shows that Von Trier has faith in mankind. His detractors like to label him as a cynical atheist, but "Breaking the Waves" definitely proved me the opposite. Von Trier made a poignant epic about the struggle of an innocent, good-hearted woman who wants to do what God wants her to do (or, at least, what she thinks He wants her to do) and make her husband happy - even if she has to sacrifice herself for that. It's a leap of faith both for Bess and the watcher, who's got to decide if he's ready for such an experience. I wasn't disappointed at all. 10 out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I first watched this film, I wasn't quite sure what period this was set in (the early 1970's according to many), where it was (Scotland, I think), or what exactly was wrong with Beth (Emily Watson in a break out performance). Was she nuts? Was she just a bit slow? Was she simply oppressed by the fanatical religious fervor of her town and family? I watched the whole thing with a skeptical eye. Von Trier's dogmatic style of filming (with shaky hand-held cameras, lots of intimate close-ups and a gritty texture to the stock that actually makes it look like a film from the early 70's) irked me on some level, but then I loved the "chapter breaks" with the striking wide-screen vistas of scenic wonders accompanied by pop music (from the 70's). It was all mildly interesting and a bit strange (which is always good), and when Beth made her huge "sacrifice" I didn't quite know what to make of it all, it all being so grim and emotionally draining. And then, the end, one little scene reminded me that this was not supposed to be some gritty piece of character drama, but a work of art, and suddenly, I lit up at the sight and sound of the last scene and it all made sense, Beth made sense (in a surreal way), and it was all so wonderful and tragic and wholly satisfying. Von Trier had given me a totally unique cinematic experience, and whether or not I "liked" the film had become moot. It had affected me like no other film before, and that is the highest remark any work or art could hope for.
Emotional power is one of the most difficult and complex aspects of
film-making to succeed in. Very few films can manage to be emotionally
destructive, while still retaining the viewer's concentration and
dedication to the piece. Yet, Breaking the Waves is a film that holds
more emotionally power that most films, it is not a film you will want
to see again. One viewing is enough (at least for a long period of
time). Bearing in mind, you will feel devastated by the film's
self-destructive nature and after viewing such an unforgettable story
of heart ache and sadness you will have etched into the back of your
Breaking the Waves is a complicated story; it is one that studies love, regret, guilt, madness and religion. Breaking the Waves is set in a small religious town deep in Scotland and tells the sorrowful story of the innocent Bess (Emily Watson) and her lover Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard). Jan becomes paralysed in a freak accident at the oil-rig he is working on and asks his estranged wife Bess to have sex with other men and then tell him what it was like to keep their relationship stable.
Lars Von Trier, the founder of Dogme film-making creates a drama that remains in a league of its own. Though Breaking the Waves is not Dogme film-making (like The Idiots) it still has elements of Dogme film-making style littered around it. The film is separated into chapters, which work as wonderful mood and symbolic transitions. These sequences are a single shot focusing on something that is considerably impressive, with the added touch of a brilliantly chosen song to fit the mood. The film's general direction is one that feels like it has been shot with a hand-held style.
The film studies many questionable elements of life, including topics such as death, terminal illness, spirituality, emotions and hypocrisy in religion. These are just a view of the talking points that crop up throughout the long running-time. The film asks the viewer questions and most importantly tests how much harrowing devastation you can handle. There is no denying just how pure Breaking the Waves is.
Emma Watson gives a career defining performance with her pitiful role of a naive young woman, who just wants to be free from pain. The performance is very painful to watch because it is so unbearably realistic. You become apart of her journey and watch her emotions and sanity spiral out of control, even from the people who love her. Heartbreaking in every way.
Breaking the Waves is a difficult film and one that is not for everyone, though I say it is a film which deserves the critical acclaim it gets.
Although Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" is undoubtedly one of the most impressive films of recent years, I have delayed commenting on it until now, as my feelings about it are far from clear. Certainly it has an arresting quality that held me in a vice-like grip for nearly three hours - no mean achievement as generally once over the two-hour threshold one is looking for the scissors. But, no, it has a mesmerising quality that reminds me of Dreyer's "Ordet" at times. Both are set in remote communities and deal with religious concepts which, even for a semi-believer, remain difficult to comprehend; in the case of Dreyer the miracle of a resurrection and here the hint at something similar in a final scene I will not reveal. Both films have a supposedly mentally unstable central character, a young man who talks as Christ in "Ordet" while Bess, the young woman in "Breaking the Waves" talks to God who answers her in her own voice's deepest register. Bess falls in lave with Jan, an oil-rig worker and the early scenes chart their wedding. When Jan has to return to the oil-rig the distraught Bess prays to God for his return, a prayer that is answered ironically when he returns paralysed from the neck down after an accident on the rig. How Bess lives with this situation is the subject of the second and third hours of the film. These have at times an almost unbearable intensity and at one point, where a group of children taunt Bess, we are in deepest "Mouchette" country. It is one of those very rare films where I feel the use of a hand-held camera to be completely justified as it gives extraordinarily emotional events a frenetic immediacy. However by punctuating the action with chapter headings set against long held landscape stills, moments of an almost trance-like repose are achieved between each onslaught on the senses. Whether the film is anything more than a quirky tale of sexual derangement bordering on morbidity is something that two viewings have left me uncertain about. That I have compared it to Dreyer and Bresson is evidence that it is not a work to be ignored, but at the moment I have a gut reaction that there is more than a hint of sensationalism here that somewhat diminishes its artistic integrity when set beside the work of the earlier masters.
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