PrintE-mail Written by Jack Bottomley


When it comes to Lars von Trier and others like him (although that’s a pretty narrow list), he is as much a provocateur as an auteur. His films do not so much entertain as confront, and to that end this re-release of his 1996 drama Breaking the Waves is another example of the director’s lofty ambitions, ferocious ideology and controversial style. Breaking the Waves is the first film in the director’s ‘Golden Heart Trilogy’ (which continued with the infamously controversial The Idiots in 1998 and Dancer in the Dark in 2000) and despite its bloated running time and patience-testing potential for some audiences, it is an understated masterpiece from a very complex directorial mind.

The film, set in a religious community in the Scottish Highlands in the 1970s, sees reserved and conflicted young woman Bess (Watson) marry oil rig worker Jan (Skarsgård) and get swept away by her love for him. However, when a rig accident leaves him paralysed, Bess attempts to save her husband’s passion for life by going on a journey of sexual promiscuity to satisfy his carnal needs. There is a lot to this turbulent love story and, as is the norm for much of von Trier’s work, the film’s act-based structure splits the story accordingly across the 2 ½ hour running time. Breaking the Waves, with its scenes of sexual abuse, religious bigotry and social persecution, is not an easy watch and where some will see it as a non-event, the right audience will see von Trier’s masterpiece for what it is - a bubbling pot of desire, emotion and soul.

Breaking the Waves is nowhere near as opposing as some of the director’s consequent works (The Idiots, Antichrist) but it is possibly his most poignant film. The film’s sweeping power and Dogme 95-influenced shooting present a realist vision of romance, even if by the Dogme guidelines the film does use more artificial factors than some of von Trier’s other works. Still, this is a real-feeling presentation of marriage on the rocks and an even better dissection of personal faith versus organised religion. The film asks some mighty questions about faith, sexuality and mental health, and while it is not so much an entertaining film as a deep one, there are moments here that will make the heart sink and will linger in the memory as long as a shipwreck on a coastline. The devastating power of the film is not a result of its sexual explicitness but its delivery on the combustive themes.

Breaking the Waves is really an analysis of marital duty and how challenges in marriage can push us far further than we ever expected we’d go. It is a film that somewhat lashes sectors of organised religion as self-righteous and selective when it should be all-inclusive. This drama is not an easy watch, for sure, but it is fantastic at opening your mind to potentially tricky debates, and come the end (in a rare act of fantasy) the film ends on the chimes of beauty and leaves the viewer momentarily rewarded after a journey of heartache and turmoil. Lars von Trier’s direction is focused and piercing, but it is his cast that really do his vision the most justice.

No more is this the case than with Emily Watson (back then relatively unknown), who delivers an astonishing performance as Bess. Her portrayal of a troubled but good soul is gruelling, intimate and eclipsing, Watson truly deserved all the acclaim she received. Skarsgård is also fantastic as Jan, and even when the soul of his character is brought to question, you never truly are drawn away from him or his believable love with Bess. Then there are superb supporting turns from Katrin Cartlidge as Bess’ freethinking sister-in-law Dodo and Adrian Rawlins as Dr. Richardson.

Breaking the Waves boasts exceptional performances, story, shooting (Robby Müller’s cinematography is almost a character itself) and savage emotion.Von Trier’s landmark film make one question many things, but one thing nobody will debate (even if this is not your kind of film) is that this is powerful cinema. It is of little wonder Martin Scorsese and the late, great Roger Ebert looked at it so fondly. Not for everyone but all the same a cinematic classic.

Special Features: Excerpts from 'Tranceformer - A film about Lars von Trier' / Selected commentaries / Cannes Festival 1996 promo clip / Adrian Rawlins interview / Casting Emily Watson / Extended scenes / Deleted scenes / Trailer



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