Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Everyone has something they're good at. I've always been stupid, but I'm good at this."

Film: Breaking the Waves
Year: 1996
Writer/Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Adrian Rawlins, Sandra Voe, Udo Kier.
Running time: 159 min.

Before watching Melancholia at the NZFF, I decided that I should probably get myself familiar with the work of Lars von Trier. First stop: Breaking the Waves. Where Melancholia is a more, how do I put this, Hollywood kind of von Trier, the now 15 year old Breaking the Waves exhibits von Trier's talent under the influence of the 'Dogme 95' movement. The grainy, hand-held photography gives this film a very dated, yet natural look that isn't really used that much anymore - but it is very easy to admire. There was a certain air to this movie which struck me as kinda cheap; especially with its title cards which had scenic yet sullen paintings on them, and the music that played between chapters that was the kind my mother listened to when I was a kid (I used to hate it). But it's these naturalistic touches I like to see in movies, and the fact that von Trier accompanied them with a love story made me like it even more.

Now, when I say 'love story', I mean this is every bit as tragic and as comical as anything that has been done before. But the love story that Breaking the Waves follows is almost like nothing I've ever seen. Because Lars von Trier may do many things, but adhering to the normal rules isn't one of them. The two lovers are Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) and Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård), a couple of newlyweds. All very innocent, isn't it? Well, yes, Bess is rather innocent - as childlike and psychologically disturbed as Nina Sayers in Black Swan, instead searching for love rather than perfection. Despite the restraints of her religion and her virginal qualities, she and Jan marry and she appears to fall deeply in love. Through her marriage to Jan, Bess throws her innocent self into what she thinks is Jan's real desire, first by having fully clothed sex in the bathroom at her wedding reception and going from there. But God is never far away from her, as she prays to him that Jan will return home soon from his job. Her prayers are answered, except Jan endures a horrible accident which leaves him bed-ridden and paralyzed.

Enter the conflicting world of sexual perversity and the power of God. Bess tries to care for her ailing husband, but he tells her that it won't work out since he can't perform sexually. Finally giving into her help, Jan asks Bess to go and have sex with other men and tell Jan all the details. That's when the movie goes from a seemingly sweet gesture of love to a degrading and corrupt look at what one does for love. It's sad to see how easily persuaded Bess is to do this kind of thing, blinded by her love for Jan and completely unaware of the abuse of morality behind what she is doing. Emily Watson, in an Oscar nominated role, plays this innocence so fearlessly well that is terrifying to watch her. As Bess continues her quest for Jan, the small village she lives in becomes ashamed of her, and while she is convinced that what she is doing is the will of God (she actually convinces herself that - which is also pretty sad to watch), the rest of the village is convinced that she is a sinner. Again, it's pretty sad to watch that happening too.

It's odd that I liked Breaking the Waves as much as I did. This is mainly because the two themes which come to the fore - sexual awakening and religion - are two which I don't particularly like. I usually find the former theme to end up being quite pretentious, and the latter is one which I just don't really get. But Lars von Trier, even with his strange attraction to nihilism, somehow made this work. Even when the latter part of the film is amazingly devastating, Breaking the Waves ends on quite a happy note. Except, you don't quite feel happy, but you certainly don't feel as sad as you have for the entire film. It's doused in sadness with little sprinkles of comic relief, from its stunningly realistic photography to its suffocating backdrop. But perhaps the best definition of this movie is written across Emily Watson's face: the confusion of the battle between innocence and growing up, forgetting the morality of it all along the way.

What I got:


  1. Reading this, it remind me of Susanne Bier's "Open Hearts", which I watched last month. It's also a dogma-film, but rather than with sexual awakening and religion, it deals with fidelity and the desire for something new.

  2. Sounds interesting. I will try to check it out

  3. This is among one of my all-time favorite films sitting somewhere in the top 5. It was definitely heartbreaking and mesmerizing. I had never seen a film like that before that had this grainy yet gorgeous look that makes it as if it's a home movie.

    The religious elements of the film also drew me in considering my own Catholic background as I also loved the music.

    I often feel like that for anyone new to Lars von Trier, this is the film they should start with.

    I will have my own review posted sometime next month that I will re-edit and hopefully write an essay about this film as part of my Favorite Films series.

  4. Is it weird that I wasn't disgusted at all while watching this film? I felt that Bess was on a much higher level of mind and soul than any of us. It didn't depress me much, I dunno why. Maybe I have crazy notations of love and God and all of that. I loved everytime Bess spoke to herself in the God voice and her own voice...I knew that I should think that she has a mental disability, but it sounded so limited. It was how Ebert ended his review- "Bess knows." I was just amazed by it all.
    I loved the way it looked, and the intro shots and the music there. Emily Watson was a revelation here. She's so freakishly brilliant- the innocence and the love and the faith...gah people should go bury their heads somewhere. Only if she hadn't lost that Oscar to an equally deserving and infinitely awesome Frances McDormand, we would have had a 15-year-later riot in our hands.

  5. Great review, I'm glad you liked it. Although you didn't state this explicitly, BREAKING THE WAVES is not a Dogme-95 film. It is shot in the style of one (as are all of Von Trier's movies), but it does not adhere to the rules of the rather silly Dogme-95 manifesto. Von Trier has actually only made one de facto Dogme movie, which was THE IDIOTS, his follow-up to this movie and one of his more disturbing, less accessible (but still very good) works.

    If you want to be depressed, Von Trier is certainly your go-to guy but that doesn't mean you'll like all of his movies. They can be very difficult to watch, and I'm not necessarily talking about ANTICHRIST. Movies like DOGVILLE feature rape, THE IDIOTS features group sex and public humiliation and MANDERLAY deals with racism in a startling manner not very many are prepared for. His 2001 Palme D'Or-winning film DANCER IN THE DARK is very similar to BREAKING THE WAVES in that it is about a naive woman who is tricked into doing something she shouldn't do. It's a lot lighter than WAVES, because it is a bright musical, although the ending is typical of Von Trier: sad. And there's no heavenly bells in that one.

    I look forward to hearing of your experiences with the man's movies. I don't expect you to like all of them, and none are particularly easy to love, but I still would like to know what someone else thinks of them (no rush though, since it seems Fatso is sending you random DVDs, WTF?).

  6. This movie. Oh my god, this movie.

  7. It actually has some little sprinkles of comic relief? I'm shocked lol

  8. Mette - Hmmmmm, I'll have to check that one out! Sounds interesting.

    Julian - Do check it out - it's really good!

    thevoid99 - Wow. I hadn't seen a film with such a grainy style either, so I thought it was pretty cool.
    This is the film that Lars von Trier newbies should start with (I did), but Melancholia is also a pretty good one.
    Can't wait to see what you have to say about it!

    Nikhat - I actually didn't think that Bess had a mental disability either...I just thought she was different from what is perceived to be normal, which was cool.
    Watson was freakishly brilliant in this movie. And it's kinda okay that she lost to someone like McDormand...I mean, there are very few performances that could top Watson's.

    Tyler - I know it's not a Dogme-95 film because von Trier was credited as the director, there was music used and it was set in a different time period, among other things (yes, I've done my homework!). I really want to see an actual Dogme-95 flick, so THE IDIOTS will be on my watchlist!
    I'm okay with Von Trier's movies being depressing. I mean, I kinda like depressing movies.
    As long as Fatso sends me the right DVDs, I will keep watching more von Trier! (I'm actually a bit obsessed with his work at the moment...thanks a lot)

    Simon - I know, right?!

    Lesya - It does. Which is fantastic.

  9. If you're looking for Dogme 95, I highly, highly, highly, highly recommend FESTEN by Thomas Vinterberg. It's one of my thirty favourite films of all time. It's utterly brilliant and I cannot recommend it enough, especially to people who are looking for great Dogme 95 movies. I'd check that out before THE IDIOTS.

  10. Ah, I'll put that in my queue now. Thanks!

  11. Wow what a great review, I need to watch this again after reading your excellent posr


You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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