Breaking the Waves

(Lars von Trier, Denmark, 1996)


Breaking The Waves is more an event than a movie. Few films cause more heated discussion. And such mixed views reflect something of the mixed nature of the film itself, which constantly lurches from surprising, compelling moments to clumsy, risible ones.

Lars von Trier – a director I have rarely admired – boldly redefined his career with this controversial effort. Departing from the fashionable, punk nihilism of Zentropa (1991) and The Kingdom (1994), he has plunged headfirst into an intense exploration of spirituality, madness and true romance.

Everything in this tale is ambiguous. Is Bess (Emily Watson) a deluded simpleton, or a visionary who can truly converse with God? Is the deity that animates her hysterical actions a stern, Calvinist God or a softer, Christian one? Is her all-consuming love for Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) a case of hopeless, empty dependence or a splendid utopian ideal? And does Bess really have spiritual powers that can affect the course of life and death?

Film buffs will recognise von Trier's questions as homages to the oeuvre of Carl Dreyer (Day of Wrath [1943], Ordet [1955]). But Dreyer never made a film as chaotic in execution as this. Although beautifully paced and dramatically involving for its entire two and a half hours, Breaking the Waves is often a vertigo-inducing eyesore (as was The Kingdom). The images (flattened by a video treatment) jump, dive and go out of focus for interminable periods.

Conceptually, too, this portrait often jars. Von Trier opposes Bess, the dancing, pouting, free spirit, to stern church elders and disapproving community members with a broad-stroke crudity that recalls Bad Boy Bubby (1993). And when Bess starts prostituting herself in order to magically revive the injured Jan, the film is in severe danger of becoming a puerile, Betty Blue-style male fantasy about women as cracked but angelic whores.

But, for all these problems, there is something amazing about Breaking the Waves. Primarily, our fascination is caught and held by Watson's extraordinary performance. Thanks to her, Bess' character demands our respect, love and reflection. Her dreams become challenges to the rational, Calvinist world depicted – and also to our own ideological prejudices as viewers.

After so many years of enduring von Trier's flip, superficial exercises, I am suspicious of surrendering completely to the emotional pull of this film. I wonder whether it is really just another artless pastiche, an ersatz mix of religious themes and images borrowed from the classic works of Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini. But Breaking The Waves is obviously more than this – just how much more, I have yet to figure out.

MORE von Trier: The Boss of It All, Dancer in the Dark, The Five Obstructions, The House That Jack Built

© Adrian Martin February 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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