(Denmark/UK 1996 159m) DVD1/2
Talking to God
p Vibeke Windelov, Peter Aalbeck d Lars Von Trier w Lars Von Trier, Peter Asmussen ph Robby Müller ed Anders Refn m Joachim Holbek art Karl Juliasson
Emily Watson (Bess McNeil), Stellan Skarsgård (Jan), Katrin Cartlidge (Dodo), Jean-Marc Barr (Terry), Adrian Rawlins (Dr Richardson), Sandra Voe (Bess’ mother), Udo Kier, Jonathan Hackett,
“It’s when two people are joined with God” Watson’s Bess responds to the question of what matrimony is in the opening sequence. That’s one way of looking at it, but it’s more indicative of the strictly Presbyterian upbringing of her remote island (Shetland or Orkneys, it’s not made entirely clear); she is, from the outset, looking like she’s ready to meet her maker. So much so that when she eventually does leave this mortal coil, it’s as if she’s returning home and it’s hard to feel any sorrow. Certainly that is what Von Trier seemed to be saying, with his miraculous bells from on high.
Bess McNeil is a young woman who has retreated from reality and her own obvious mental shortcomings into a world where, rather than talk to an imaginary friend, she conducts conversations with God. After long complaining of not having someone to love (except for her only true friend, the widow of her deceased brother), she is about to get married to an oil worker, Jan, who has fallen in love with her. The wedding is a suitably frosty affair, given the surroundings, but after a brief period of happiness, fate takes a hand and Jan is paralysed seemingly for life in a rig accident. However, when he asks her to take a lover and relate to him her sexual experiences, the line between reality and fantasy becomes dangerously blurred.
Breaking the Waves is by no means a lovely film and the quote on the DVD jacket, referring to it as loved by audiences and critics alike is misleading, to say the least. Like all Von Trier’s work, it split both audiences and critics down the middle. A reasonable majority hailed it as a masterpiece and Watson’s performance as sensational, but detractors included Mark Kermode and David Thomson, who especially disliked Watson’s performance. I think it rather comes down to how you approach and respond to the central character. She’s self absorbed, for sure, but at the same time has not a selfish bone in her body. “You’d give anything to anyone” a tearful Cartlidge tells her at the wedding reception, and she’s right. It’s this paradox that is critical to both the film’s and the character’s understanding. Her childlike gestures and smirks, like a cat who has not so much got the cream, but been to a feline orgy, light up the film from the wedding to her final death. Say what you like about the character but it’s a truly magnificent tour de force, the sort of performance that comes along all too rarely from a debutante. Her shouts and hysterical screams truly are enough to break the waves apart in an attempt to call her husband home from the work she sees as her own personal enemy. She’s best summed up by Rawlins at the inquest, when he says that rather than use a word like “neurotic” or “psychotic”, he might have used a word like “good.” Whatever you think about the sexual and moral degradation of Bess’ character – from the rape on the boat to the infamous hand-job on the bus it is certainly hard to like – it’s deeply affecting, all the more so because of the casualness of the photography and crispness of the editing.
Though Watson drew much of the praise, one must also single out the uncanny use of pop music of the seventies period (from Deep Purple to T-Rex, Procul Harem to Elton John) and the unwavering direction of Von Trier, who may well have created his masterpiece with this. Yet one must not forget the contribution of the true emotional centre of the film, the superb and much missed Katrin Cartlidge as Dodo (his later Dogville was dedicated to her). Her true hysteria at her friend’s death showing how Dr Richardson was right; it’s perfectly normal to outwardly show your grief. As for Waves, I’ll leave the final word to the now defunct Neon magazine; “some films keep you on the edge of your seat, this one kneecaps you.”