Classic Film Club: Breaking the Waves (1996)

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Lars Von Trier's 'Breaking the Waves' (1996)

It’s already been noted that Lars Von Trier’s new film ‘Antichrist’ expands upon a theme which has been present throughout his career: the suffering of women. This trend first became apparent over a decade ago with the pre-Dogme ‘Breaking the Waves’ and continued with the wildly divisive musical ‘Dancer in the Dark’ four years later. And while it’s undeniable that all three films subject their female central characters to a parade of physical, spiritual and psychological abuse, debate rages as to Von Trier’s attitude towards this hardship, and the women themselves: is the director a benevolent god, sympathetically shepherding his characters through the pitfalls of life in a cold, hateful universe, or is he just a kid with a magnifying glass, setting ants on fire for the simple, amoral pleasure of watching them burn? And is it possible for an artist to be both, simultaneously?

Breaking the Waves’ doesn’t provide a concrete answer to that question. It’s undoubtedly a sympathetic film – the character of Bess McNeill, Emily Watson’s long-suffering heroine, is the centre of the story, its spirit, its beating heart. But equally, Von Trier does everything he can to crush that spirit and stop that heart, and eventually he succeeds. It’s not as tortuous or arguably exploitative as ‘Dancer in the Dark’, though that could simply be down to the presence of Watson, a far more expressive actress than her counterpart, Björk, in the later film. What’s never in doubt is the film’s emotional force, stemming partly from Watson’s wide-eyed, raw-nerve performance, but also from Von Trier’s courageous and consistently surprising stylistic choices: his sense of place, period and mood, and his wonderful musical selections.

The story takes place on a remote Scottish island some time in the early ’70s. Bess, an emotional prodigy often overwhelmed by life and simultaneously coddled and patronised by her tight religious community, has fallen in love for the first time. Her intended, Danish oil rigger Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), is a more worldly type, deeply attached to Bess but not fully aware of the scale of her obsession with him. Following their marriage, Jan returns to the rigs despite Bess’s protestations. And when she prays to God for his return – Bess and God have a close, one-on-one relationship throughout the film – Jan is severely wounded, and shipped to a hospital on the mainland, simultaneously fulfilling Bess’s deepest desire and her worst fear.

The opening sections, filled with joy and discovery, are the film’s strongest. Von Trier’s tactic of splitting the film into chapters, each separated by a single, part-painted landscape frame scored by everything from Mott the Hoople to Elton John, lends the film a self-consciously grand, literary air that it wears perfectly. But the intervening scenes are anything but self-conscious, they’re intimate and even explicit, exploring the blossoming of Bess and Jan’s love, and her sexual awakening, with tenderness and empathy. That we can sense the darkness coming, like the watercolour stormclouds brooding on the horizon of one of those painterly intertitles, only makes the happier moments all the sweeter.

And then the storm breaks. The scenes dealing with Bess’s hysteria after Jan’s accident are difficult to watch. Watson throws herself entirely into the role, her desperation wholly believable. But worse is to come: now paralysed from the waist down, Jan is so starved of sexual experience that he persuades Bess to give herself to strangers, in order that she can recount her adventures for his pleasure. This is where Von Trier begins to lose a certain amount of control over his material, as some of the more interesting characters – Bess’s religious forefathers, Jan’s oil rig colleagues – fade into the background, to be replaced by Adrian Rawlins’ conflicted but not entirely convincing doctor, and Karin Cartlidge’s likeable but increasingly one-note nurse Dodo. The scenes of Bess’s humiliation are never excessive, but they are deeply unnerving, forcing one to question Von Trier’s attachment to his hapless creation.

On a certain level, ‘Breaking the Waves’ is a hard film to write about. It’s an emotionally rather than intellectually focused piece of work, demanding that the viewer surrender their conscious selves, which at times is harder than it ought to be. What subtext Von Trier manages to include – with the exception of a welcome and very clear-sighted critique of religious isolationism – is rather crude, serving more as a functional aside to the main story than as a pointed intellectual argument. None of which is intended as a criticism, but it does mean that while Von Trier’s film will entrance and overwhelm some viewers, others will be left entirely cold, and even angered by its sheer, unrelenting delirium.

This viewer found himself caught somewhere in the middle. Watson’s performance coupled with Von Trier’s at times shockingly intimate filmmaking style lend certain scenes an undeniable power, and there are moments in ‘Breaking the Waves’ that simply defy description, and must be experienced. But there’s also an increasing sense of grim, joyless inevitability about the entire enterprise, resulting in an overplayed, painfully self-aware art-movie finale that undercuts much of the emotional truth that lifted so many of the early scenes.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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