Breaking the Waves Review
In a small community in Scotland (filmed in the Highlands and on Skye), Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) is about to marry Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a worker on the nearby offshore oil rigs. Bess's sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), who married Bess's late brother and came into the community as an outsider, is delighted for her, although the Kirk elders and the priest (Jonathan Hackett) are suspicious of those not from the village. At first, Bess is happy with Jan, but then he suffers an accident which leaves him paralysed, possibly for the rest of his life. As she visits Jan in hospital, Bess makes a bargain with him: to seek sexual fulfilment with other men. But soon word of her behaviour gets round the community...
Twenty years on from Breaking the Waves, we are aware that Lars Von Trier is a restless, exploratory, sometimes problematic filmmaker, ever open to experimentation and breaking of the "rules" of cinema. Breaking the Waves, which premiered at the Cannes in 1996 – it won the Grand Jury Prize – served notice of this. Emily Watson went on to an Oscar nomination and a fine career that continues to this day, though she's never had a role like this since. Stellan Skarsgård and the late Katrin Cartlidge are both fine, but it's Watson's film.
Von Trier's debut film was The Element of Crime, released in 1984 when he was twenty-eight, English-language despite his Danish heritage, an overpoweringly stylised film, shot in yellow-tinted black and white, heavily concerned with the imagery, less concerned with his rather misplaced international cast and some unspeakable dialogue. Some loved it, others (like me) loathed it. His follow-ups, Epidemic (1987, which did not have a commercial UK release until Tartan's DVD of 2005) and Europa (1991) continued in the same vein. Meanwhile, for Danish TV, Von Trier made The Kingdom, the first series of which aired in 1994. A combination of medical drama, black comedy and many horror/fantasy tropes, visually it was remarkably different to what had gone before. It was shot in a combination of Super 16 and video, edited in the latter, the result being a distinctly grainy, sepia-washed appearance, that anticipates the distinct look of Robby Müller's camerawork for Breaking the Waves, though that was originated in 35mm. More important was the filmmaking style: handheld in lengthy master shots, cutting on movement, not worrying if a shot was miscomposed or even in some cases out of focus, as long as the emotional truth of the scene was there. This use of hand-held, catch-as-catch-can camerawork prefigures the Dogme 95 manifesto, which Von Trier had a hand in creating, and to which movement he contributed film #2, the video-shot, Danish-language The Idiots. However, the film isn't as free-form as it might seem. Von Trier the formalist is still there, and remains there to this day, not least in the division of the film into seven chapters and an epilogue. Each of these is announced by a title card, as a song – prog-rock and pop from the 1970s, or in the case of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale", the 1960s – over a computer-animated landscape shot.
What Breaking the Waves also highlighted, is something that preoccupies Von Trier to this day, up to and including this year's Nymph()maniac: an identification with a female central character which follows her degradation and destruction, often though not always expressed in sexual terms. It's there in the film he followed this up with, Dancer in the Dark, which uses many of the same techniques as Breaking the Waves and adds musical numbers to the mix, and which went one better at Cannes by winning the Palme d'Or. It's there in the still-unfinished American trilogy begun with Dogville and Manderlay. And it's certainly there in Antichrist and Melancholia, in both of which Von Trier was seeking analogues for his own depression. For his part, Von Trier says that his leading characters are aspects of himself – and, for example, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård play different parts of himself in Nymph()maniac. There is a case that Bess, like many of these woman, is crushed by a patriarchal, misogynistic society – in this case, the religion-fuelled small community – and this is a tragedy to be criticised. God Himself (Bess has many judgemental dialogues with him in church) as well as His representatives on Earth is certainly as the basis of this. In a way, Bess is following a perverse version of the doctrine of self-sacrifice to save others. Yet, there's a sense that Von Trier is (masochistically?) awfully exercised by the process of it. And given a brilliant performance by Emily Watson (her big-screen debut, at the age of twenty-nine) it's a frequently painful process to watch. Over two and a half hours, Breaking the Waves is a film that drains you. Whether you find the final sequence outright kitsch, or savage irony, or to be taken straight, is up to you.
Breaking the Waves is reissued by Artificial Eye on Blu-ray and DVD. It was a checkdisc the latter which was received for review, and comments below and affiliate links refer to that edition. For affiliate links for the latter, go here. The DVD is dual-layered in PAL format and encoded for Region 2 only.
Breaking the Waves was the second Von Trier, after the anamorphic-shot Europa, in Scope. It was filmed in Super 35, edited on video and instead of using this to edit the film negative, the video was printed directly back to 35mm for cinema prints. This results in a deliberate degradation of the image: frequently very grainy, often (especially in interiors) with a brownish-ochre tint to the image. The computer-generated chapter cards stand by comparison. This isn't the most attractive-looking film you'll ever see, but it it what it looked like in the cinema. The DVD is in the intended ratio of 2.40:1 and is widescreen-enhanced.
The film was made in the English-language, though there are no subtitles for the hard of hearing unfortunately. The soundtrack comes in two versions, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0), but they sound much the same: Breaking the Waves was mixed in mono, other than the music playing over the chapter cards (there is no other non-diegetic music) and the very overt surround-sound bells in the final scene.
The commentary is the work of Von Trier, editor Anders Refn and Anthony Dod Mantle (who loses his first name on the menu page). Dod Mantle, who worked as cinematographer for Von Trier on Dogville, Manderlay and Antichrist , was the location scout for Breaking the Waves and gets a namecheck as the sinner buried and condemned to Hell in an early funeral scene. What there is, is interesting and sometimes funny. However, it's a selected-scenes commentary which plays as an alternative soundtrack over the whole two and a half hours of the film, so there are long gaps where the feature sound plays and no way of going forward to the next part of the commentary unless you know where it starts.
Also on the disc is an extract (17:26) from the documentary portrait of Von Trier, Tranceformer, made in 1997, featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Breaking the Waves. The whole of Tranceformer (which runs 51 minutes in all) is worth watching and can be found in a few places, such as among the extras of Second Sight's release of The Kingdom.
The remaining extras are all quite short. They begin with the theatrical trailer (2:00), which has a lot of spoilers. Adrian Rawlins, who played Dr Richardson, gives an interview (2:09) and talks about how much freedom he had, with and the camera operator having to follow him rather than his being obliged to hit marks, and frequently being allowed to improvise. Emily Watson's audition video (2:03) follows, with an optional commentary from Von Trier, Refn and Dod Mantle. Von Trier, who has a lifelong fear of flying, was not actually present: you can hear a female voice offscreen prompting Watson.
Next up are some deleted scenes, from rough-looking video copies but in the right ratio. One (1:10) is separately presented as a memorial to Katrin Cartlidge, who died in 2002 aged just forty-one. Two other scenes (3:33 and 2:43) can be presented separately or as a Play All with an optional commentary. There are also two extended scenes, presented as a single item (3:10), again with an optional commentary. Finally, there is Von Trier's fifteen-second promo clip from Cannes in 1996. He apologises for there not being any clips from the film itself as "they're not good enough" so we are to enjoy the whole film instead...and the camera pulls away to reveal that he is wearing a garment appropriate to the Scottish setting.