By Dean Treadway
I first encountered Lars Von Trier’s masterful Breaking the Waves in an unusual way: it had just been nominated for a slew of Golden Globe awards (including the top three Drama awards, yet it would only garner one eventual and clearly unavoidable Oscar nod), in a year dominated by indie-flavored movies like Fargo and The English Patient. When the nominations came down, I was dumbstruck, because Breaking the Waves had not yet played in my hometown, but had definitely made a splash in Cannes earlier that year. I wasn’t even able to make it out to the theaters to see it that year, it was so low on my priorities. I was a fool.
When I finally did see it, I was doubly dumbstruck, and could have kicked myself for not catching it on the big screen when I had the chance. I found it to be a complete masterpiece–to the point where it still remains the most recent entrant into my personal top twenty films of all time. As overwhelming as it is cinematically, with Von Trier and cinematographer Robby Muller working at their absolute apex, it was Emily Watson that impressed, and still impresses me most. Her Bess, so loving and trustful and completely devoted, was unlike any fictional character I had ever seen. She felt like a wide-eyed child, but yet she was very much an alluring woman, with a woman’s fullest desires, but perhaps without the wherewithal to understand those drives, except to say that she knew she totally had to follow them to what she saw as their natural end. She is like a strong but tiny bird one wants to help survive the cold outside. The fact that she had equal desires to be faithful to God and to her church complicated matters, especially since the church she follows (in early 70s Scotland, where the film is set) has a very dim view of women’s thoughts or contributions, except as earthly birth vessels.
Bess’ love of Jan, an oil rig worker toiling somewhere off the angry Scottish coast, is a force to behold. It’s seriously a love unlike any other I have witnessed in movies. It is complete and devoted, carnal and innocent, wild and reckless. Bess gives herself over completely to Jan (played also impeccably by Stellan Skarsgaard), to the point where the viewer even wonders if Jan is taking advantage of this simple minded girl (which is certainly something the late Katrin Cartlidge, exquisite as Bess’ widowed sister-in-law, wonders as well–her character is a nurse, so she’s deeply investing in Bess’ well-being all throughout, and even sternly yet gently warns Jan not to break her heart). There is never really a moment where we suspect Jan is truly deceiving Bess, though. He obviously loves her innocence and her devotion to what she believes, and of course her revelry in their shared desire (just look at him as he looks over at Bess adoringly while they’re at the cinema together; her eyes are trained on the movie–she’s the perfect movie watcher, so ready to believe what she sees–and his eyes are trained so intently, deeply on her…it’s all just so ridiculously sweet).
The film begins with Bess confessing her love for Jan to God, to whom she talks–repeatedly throughout the film–in a empty church all by herself (presumably because none of the church father’s will truly listen to her without judgement). Early on, we have a sense that Bess is at least a creative type, if not a tad bit off, because she takes on the role of God in her confession. Her God voice is a deep, chiding one, impatient with her girlish selfishness…it seems like a voice that comes wholly outside of her personality and intelligence quotient, so we sense that maybe there’s a psychosis happening here. But I don’t think she is insane (though I do think she is driven to do insane things, by her own misunderstandings). In the end, Bess is simply trying to reconcile the love of a God who thinks her silly (as she portrays him, or as she has been taught to think of him) with the love of a flawed man who thinks she’s absolutely wonderful. Breaking the Waves chronicles a woman who follows God, but not as devoutly as she does the earthy man who loves her, and whom she takes as her husband.
As this is a Lars Von Trier film, Watson’s character is certainly run through the wringer (Bjork, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kirsten Dunst would also assay tortured females in later Von Trier efforts). Bess begins the film completely lovestruck, dancing with abandon at her low-key down-home wedding and losing her virginity to Jan in the bathroom before the reception is even over (you can sense her complete devotion to sex from the outset; yet intimacy, even without sex, is also a fascination for her, as we see in a brilliant moment where she lies awake, listening and giggling as Jan snores away, asleep). There’s not much time for a honeymoon, as Jan is due back on the oil rig in mere days, and when he has to leave for work (for which he will be away for many weeks), Bess’ rage is unleashed. Now that she’s given herself over to a new “God”–one who has a personality which she cannot provide herself–she is left completely without half of her new self. Jan, too, is torn asunder by his responsibility to work, which takes precedence over his new marriage. One wonders is Jan, too, is taking on perhaps more than he can handle by marrying Bess–he is genuinely shocked by her anger, but there is clearly part of him that finds it charming and romantic (which it is). But he doesn’t quite see the danger in it. However, honestly, who could predict such a future as this?
Tortured by his absence, Bess begs God to provide her for a way to be with Jan once again, and God does indeed provide that chance, but in a dark, perhaps mischievous and even punishing manner. On the oil rig, Jan is stricken with a serious injury after his probably drunken co-workers mishandle a piece of equipment that crashes into his head, knocking him into a coma. Quickly, he is rushed to the coast, where he is interred in the hospital where Cartlidge’s Dodo works as a nurse (there is nothing in cinema like the scene where Bess gets the word that Jan is seriously wounded: she disappears from the moment in a faint that is painfully, palpably real, especially as photographed in that grainy, handheld sheen by cinematographer Robby Muller).
Bess takes Jan’s new arrival by her side as a sign that God is testing her, and so she takes on the full responsibility for his injury. So, when Jan finally comes to and is presumably paralyzed for life, we can feel his pain too. Here he is, a new husband who abdicated his love for a paycheck, and HE’S responsible for that. The guilt he feels is crushing, especially as he realizes that Bess is worth all the love that he can give to her. But he also realizes that he can never give her the full physical intimacy that she deserves, and so a psychosis enters into his own plate of problems. He asks her–for purely selfish reasons–to go out and experience sex with other men, and then come back and tell him all about it. This is his way of achieving consort with her body, yes, but he doesn’t take into account how this will affect her fragile personality–he seems to do it as a perhaps doped-up, bed-bound lark. But, as he is her new “God,” she follows his instructions, to her own eventual fate.
Breaking the Waves is a steamroller, an emotional workout of immense proportions. It is a story of sacrifice and faith, almost to the nth degree. It is not just Bess’s tale–it is Jan’s as well. It’s a journey to enlightenment that they take together, and by the film’s end–and it surely sports a soaring, surprising ending that one would never EVER forget upon seeing it–you are sure that you have witnessed one of the great love stories ever, even if it’s one that does not take the trajectory that any screen romance, before or since, has taken. With Von Trier’s superb direction, Muller’s unusual and groundbreaking photography, the brilliantly curated British pop music soundtrack (featuring Jethro Tull, Elton John, and Deep Purple, among many others), those unforgettably idyllic chapter stops by Per Kirkeby (done in a color-steeped style very different from Muller’s more grungy, documentary-influenced work throughout), and especially the deeply committed performances by Skarsgaard, Cartlidge, Jean Marc-Barr (as Jan’s best friend), and especially by Emily Watson (who gives an astounding performance that takes it place alongside Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan D’arc as arguably the greatest ever put on film), it’s incredibly easy–for me, at least–to see Breaking the Waves as a film that staunchly proves its thesis. On its movie poster, the tagline was “Love is a mighty power.” After seeing it, you truly stumble away, dazed, saying to yourself “Yeah. It goddamn well is.”