color 153 min.
Director: Lars Von Trier
CLV: $69.95 - available
2 discs, catalog # CC1494L
Lars Von Trier's breathtaking and audacious Breaking the Waves opens with an inquisition and closes with a miracle. From the first scene you know that this film is going to be about the test of a pure heart; on the eve of her wedding Bess (Emily Watson, in an extraordinary film debut) withstands a withering examination by her church elders with an openness and humor that comes from her secret: She has a direct line to the Almighty. And, thanks to Bess, He gets some of the best lines. The elders dismiss Bess, each with a look like the wrath of God, but once outside, she gives us a look that is pure grace and joy. It's a stunning moment because in it we join her religion.
Bess marries an outsider, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard, The Hunt for Red October), whose friends are in immediate opposition to Bess' clan of fatalistic fundamentalists. It's easy to see why Bess, a bit of an outsider in the community herself, would commit her heart to Jan and his fun-loving friends. Until she marries Jan, Bess' only friend and defender is Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge, Naked), the widow of Bess' brother, who has saved Bess from a descent into madness triggered by the brother's death. Where even Dodo sees only a vulnerable, feeble Bess, Jan sees goodness and love. Through Jan, Bess discovers the pleasures of sex and the joys of marital love, and a rapturous transformation begins.
It sounds slightly ludicrous, like some overheated soap opera, but director Lars Von Trier transcends the melodrama with a daring technical style. More remarkable than Von Trier's command of film technique is his passionate exploration of faith, grace and redemption. This is a film made by a man who has come to religion late in life--Von Trier grew up in a radical home where religion took a back seat to intellectual pursuits. Von Trier turned to Roman Catholicism in his mid-thirties, and Breaking the Waves has the fervor of a recent convert. It's also his revolt against a tired world cinema; a mantle he's picked up from another great Danish filmmaker, Carl Theodor Dreyer.
The shadow of Dreyer, a fiercely independent and visionary filmmaker, stands over Breaking the Waves--and all of Von Trier's work since 1988. Dreyer is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, and one of the least seen, because his films are so exacting. Dreyer strips cinema to its essentials, creating stark, penetrating dramas about man's struggle with God, love, and faith. His films can be daunting for an average audience; even Von Trier claims to find Dreyer's rigorous style humorless and dry.
But Dreyer and Von Trier have a lot in common. Both use the camera to undermine our complacency about cinema. They challenge us to pay attention. And Von Trier has learned from Dreyer to respect the actor, to cut out all the unnecessary moments and to get to the heart of the performance.
Breaking the Waves is full of references to Dreyer. Though the working title was a famous line ("love is everywhere") from Dreyer's last film, Gertrud (1964), it can be seen as a '90s update of Dreyer's masterpiece, Ordet (1954). Both are about a tragedy resolved through faith. In Ordet the miracle worker is Johannes, the supposedly insane son who thinks he is the reembodiment of Jesus Christ. No one believes in him until his eight-year-old sister takes his hand, and then Johannes works a miracle: He brings the dead back to life.
Bess and Johannes have a lot in common. They're both hard to get a fix on. We can't agree with their actions, and maybe we doubt their faith--but we can't dismiss them either. Von Trier's careful to let his cast work off the humor of the situation as well as the horror of the reality. Watson draws us into Bess' struggle with God by playing her with such affection, playfulness, and commitment that, even as we cringe, we can't help pulling for her.
Von Trier draws us in further by updating Dreyer's rigorous, stately camerawork with an aggressive documentary style. Von Trier and cinematographer Robby Müller (Wim Wenders' longtime cameraman) would set the scene and then leave the actors to move freely about. Often only the camera operator and the actors were in the room during a take. The camera racks focus and quickly pans from actor to actor to catch the "truth" of the scene. While a scene might have been reshot, there were no repetitions. Each take was different.
Von Trier is then brave enough to jump-cut from emotion to emotion. Regardless of the technical quality of the shots, the heart of the performance is always emotionally centered. It's pure cinema verité. "We've chosen a style that works against the story," Von Trier has said. "which gives it the least opportunity to highlight itself. The raw documentary style . . . means that we accept the story as it is."
Von Trier preached a return to naturalism in cinema in a creed he published as "Dogma." It's an odd cry from a filmmaker who had built up a reputation as a baroque stylist. His first film, The Element of Crime (1984), is a stunning riff on Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville that turns Alphaville on its head by throwing Lemmy Caution to the winds. Set in a Tarkovsky-like post-apocalyptic flood zone, Von Trier displays a fascination with back-projection and double exposures. It's a fascination he continues to refine through his next two features, Epidemic (1987) and Zentropa (1991). This informal trilogy earned him a false reputation as a cold and superficial technical whiz kid.
You see how wrong this notion is in Von Trier's filming of Dreyer's unproduced script of Medea (1988). In this Danish television production, Dreyer's humanistic mysticism focuses Von Trier's passion for technique through intimate drama. Von Trier connects performance to imagistic style using a primitive version of transferring film to video and back to film (here shooting the video of the film off a monitor) that he ultimately refines so brilliantly in Breaking the Waves. With The Kingdom (1994), a four-hour television production, Von Trier, in a stunning jump in style, introduces a documentary camera technique and eschews conventional editing strategies. Ostensibly a parody of television hospital dramas, The Kingdom is closer in spirit to Twin Peaks. Thematically, The Kingdom is the flip side of Breaking the Waves. Where Breaking the Waves is a proof of the existence of Good, The Kingdom is about the existence of Evil. Full of genre in-jokes, suspense, and playful notions of life after death, it works on its own terms.
Like Dreyer, Lars Von Trier is the kind of filmmaker who gives critics fits. He's an outlaw working by his own rules. He's a brilliant, critical, proud, playful, juvenile, and thoughtful filmmaker. Breaking the Waves contains all these complex contradictions. The chapter cards, separating the key sections of the film, are 19th-century inspired hyper-romantic panoramas digitally created by artist Per Kirkeby, awash with banal mystical-romantic anthems like "Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Life on Mars," all in support of a story about God and prostitution‹it's either completely inspired or completely insane. Only a filmmaker with Von Trier's brilliance and balls would have attempted to synthesize '70s kitsch and '90s sarcasm with a deeply personal exploration of religious faith. His own artistic leap of faith is what pulls it all off.
-- Mark Rance
Mark Rance is a producer for the Criterion Collection and is the director of Filmforum in Los Angeles.