Judge Clark Douglas misses the sound of church bells.
Love is a mighty power.
"Everyone has one thing they're good at. I've always been stupid, but I'm good at this."
Facts of the Case
Bess McNeill (Emily Watson, Red Dragon) is a simple, cheerful Scottish woman who views life through a childlike lens. Many residents of the conservative, religious town Bess resides in regard her naivete with dismay, but most seem pleased when she decides to marry the jovial oil rig worker Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgard, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest). Bess and Jan are immensely happy together, but Bess grows extremely distressed when Jan leaves home for a while to go back to work on the oil rig. Alas, Jan returns under tragic circumstances: an accident leaves him paralyzed, and Bess seems incapable of finding a way to deal with the situation. In a misguided bid to free his wife from her mental stress, Jan encourages Bess to go have sex with other men and report back to him. Will Bess' efforts to grant her husband's request prove rewarding or destructive?
Lars von Trier has long had a reputation as a provocateur; pressing buttons and inspiring outrage time and time again over the course of his storied career. His films tend to explore dark, controversial subject matter and employ atypically explicit material. More than a few actors—well, actresses in particular—have claimed that working with him is a hellish experience. Even so, it would be foolish to regard von Trier as little more than a cinematic rabble-rouser flinging excrement at good taste. The man is a serious, thoughtful filmmaker whose best works are profound, mysterious, troubling works of art. Breaking the Waves certainly belongs near the top of any list of great von Trier films, boasting an astonishing central performance from Emily Watson, meaty ideas and an unforgettable ending.
The heart of the film is not found in the relationship between Bess and Jan, but rather in the relationship between Bess and God. Every day, Bess gets down on her knees, casts her eyes heavenward and speaks to The Almighty. Such a practice is fairly common in her town, of course. Nearly everyone attends the local church, which practices an exceptionally dogmatic brand of Christianity (women are not permitted to speak in church, and funeral services often include assurances that the person being buried is going to hell). However, God actually replies to Bess' countless queries—or at least she thinks he does. When Bess speaks to God, she uses her own quivering, timid, childlike voice, then verbalizes God's replies in a deep, weary, grown-up voice. These scenes are never less than fascinating, serving as a valuable glimpse into the fractured psyche of our poor protagonist.
Bess' frequent conversations with God only add to the feeling that we're witnessing von Trier's take on the story of Job, in which a devoted individual's faith is put to the test. The extreme situations Bess is willing to put herself in (particularly in the later portion of the film) are horrifying, but she continues to endure them because she's convinced herself that it's something she must do for her husband. Jan's unusual request doesn't seem to be rooted in malice; he seems to feel that the only way Bess will be happy is if she's free to continue exploring her sexuality (she had been a virgin before marriage, and had quite enjoyed her brief journey into that particular part of life). Nearly every sexual situation Bess initiates turns out disastrously, but she continuously returns to Jan and turns those encounters into Penthouse Forum letters for his benefit.
It isn't an exact retelling of Job, mind you. After all, Satan played a pretty big role in that particular tale, and he's nowhere to be found in Breaking the Waves. Or is he? Darkness is not presented in the form of a single human character (though the creep played by Udo Kier comes pretty close), but rather in the suffocating religious culture Bess has absorbed her entire life. It's almost certainly the church's insistence that women should be submissive servants which drives her to such extreme actions, but the church is unwilling to aid or support her once she's taken those actions (in one painful scene, a priest refuses to help Bess after she passes out, as he's fearful that others will see him associating with a "tart"). Over the years, humans have had a knack for attributing their own biases and personal beliefs to God. Breaking the Waves confronts that habit in bold, alarming fashion. I won't spoil the conclusion, but suffice it to say that it's a spiritually-charged climax worthy of comparison with the concluding moments of Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Dreyer's Ordet. It re-contextualizes much of what we've seen, and adds a considerable amount of both beauty and terror to a film which already had plenty of both.
Breaking the Waves (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection has received a strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which permits the film to look as terrific as it possibly can under the circumstances. Much of the movie has an intentionally gritty, grainy, faded look (the film partially adheres to Dogme 95 rules, but occasionally violates those rules in a very noticeable fashion), but detail is strong throughout, depth is impressive and those chapter card shots (generally featuring sweeping images of Scottish landscapes) are simply stunning. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also exceptional. Most of the film is dominated by dialogue and light sound design, but those aforementioned chapter cards (and a few other key moments) are underscored by instantly recognizable songs performed by the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie.
Supplements are exceptionally generous and compelling. You get a select-scene audio commentary with von Trier, editor Anders Refn and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, new interviews with actors Emily Watson (18 minutes), Stellan Skarsgard (13 minutes) and Adrian Rawlins (3 minutes), an interview with critic Stig Borgman (11 minutes), some deleted/extended scenes (including one selected by von Trier as a tribute to the late Katrin Cartlidge), footage from Emily Watson's audition, a promotional clip used at the Cannes Film Festival when the film premiered there in 1996, a trailer, a booklet featuring an essay by David Sterritt and an interview with von Trier and two DVDs containing the film + all of the aforementioned extras (this is now Criterion's standard operating procedure, effectively "future-proofing" all releases for this who don't yet own a Blu-ray player).
Breaking the Waves is one of Lars von Trier's finest films and a welcome addition to The Criterion Collection. It's a challenging and sometimes emotionally punishing viewing experience, but one which ultimately proves immensely rewarding. Highly recommended.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Select Scene Commentary
Review content copyright © 2014 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.