Breaking the Waves (1996) Review (Artificial Eye DVD)


1996, dir: Lars Von Trier


Lars Von Trier. A director who will either rub you up the wrong way, or have you become putty in his hands. His films are often complex and controversial, tackling topics that most directors would be too afraid to even mention. Outside of his films, Von Trier is just as complex and even more controversial. I’m not here to get in to his antics, not even going to mention the whole Hitler thing (OK, I will say that people seriously need to lighten up and actually take statements in to context). I’m here to talk about the recent DVD and Blu-ray release of Breaking the Waves from one of my favourite UK based labels, Artificial Eye. My first real encounter with Von Trier was Antichrist, a film that critics and academics have dissected and interpreted in a way I haven’t seen since Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Ok, that may be a slightly exaggerated claim, but one Google search for Antichrist will expose you to a wide range of academic texts and blog posts. Some make sense and bring something interesting to the debate, some merely serve as egotistical ammunition for film snob pissing contests. Yeah, something tells me that’s what Lars would have wanted! Earlier this year I was lucky enough to catch Nymphomaniac Parts 1 & 2 at FACT in Liverpool. I’m just going to say that for me, Nymphomaniac (both parts included as one) is hands down the best film of 2014. I can’t wait to pick up the fully uncut version on disc. Why have I just wasted your time telling you this? It’s easy! When I heard that Artificial Eye were releasing Breaking the Waves (a film I had seen segments of many years a go on Film 4 and never knew was a Von Trier film until a couple of years a go), I was extremely excited! What did I make of this 159 minute epic? Hopefully my excitement will be matched by the films gigantic running time!


Before I get in to my review however, I’m not going to bore you to tears with an academic approach. I’ll save those discussions for someone else. I’m going to look at the film on a somewhat personal level. We will cross that bridge when we get there. Breaking the Waves stars Emily Watson (War Horse) in her film debut as Bess McNeil. She lives on a small isolated island in Scotland. The film is set during the 1970’s and as to expected, attitudes towards women, faith and those from foreign soil are backwards to say the least. The men of the island don’t allow their women to speak in services at the church or attend funerals and they do not like the idea of ‘Outsiders’ becoming members of their flock. This is were Norwegian oil worker Jan, played by Stellan Skarsgård (Nymphomaniac), comes in to play. Jan and Beth are in love and marry when he has leave from his duty on the oil rig. Before the pair have time to settle and properly begin their married life, it’s off to work once again for Jan. Tragedy strikes when Jan suffers an accident on the rig and a result has to live the rest of his life paralysed. Both his and Beth’s lives will never be the same again, especially when Jan requests that she find herself another lover and be freed from the shackles of his condition. Yes, that is an abridged version of the plot. I’m one who firmly believes that a review should give you the basics (which is itself often sometimes too much) and let you discover the full story for yourself.


Bess is well and truly devoted to God. She spends a lot of her time on her knees in church ‘talking’ to the Lord. It’s through these ‘conversations’ that she finds the strength and solutions to her problems and they also ultimately play a role in her devotion to her bed ridden husband. The locals find her a pathetic, sinful character and are not afraid to air their opinions. I found her a fragile character who is in someways actually a lot stronger than those around her. She endures a lot throughout the film and it can often get very uncomfortable and distressing. There’s a scene in particular involving Udo Kier (Melancholia) that although brief, packs an emotional punch that many won’t forget. Seeing how the locals, even her own family treat Beth will frustrate and anger, especially those Atheists amongst you. Those who have watched their fair share of Von Trier films will be fully aware of how antagonistic his work can be, especially when religion is involved. No matter what Bess does, the viewer never judges her, we sympathise. Although her actions are unconventional, Bess is ultimately a good soul who wants nothing more than to see her husband walking again, she will pay the ultimate price for that to happen. As much as I enjoyed the film Fargo and Frances McDormand’s performance, I find it a travesty how Emily Watson didn’t win the Oscar for this performance. That being said, seeing Watson’s career take off in the way it did because of this performance does regain some hope.


I said at the start of this review saying that this would be a personal piece. What struck me on a personal level was just how much I could relate to certain aspects of the film. The relationship between Jan and Bess took me back to the early stages of my own relationship with my better half. Starting off as a long distance relationship, having to leave after spending time with her (and of course vice versa) was extremely traumatic at times, so seeing the pair being separated and the emotional stress it caused really hit home with me. Thankfully, neither of us has suffered anything as drastic as paralysis, people close to us being unsupportive of our relationship and of course, finding ourselves in the same ‘physical’ situations as Bess. I think having that connection invested me more in to the film and the overall relationship between Jan and Bess. Seeing the pair literally being pulled apart by those around them was often very hard to stomach. It may not have frustrated or angered me as much as the way Mads Mikkelsen’s character was treated by those around him in Jagten, but it certainly left its mark on me.


On a purely aesthetic and technical level, I thought this was as close to perfect as possible. First of all, the handheld cinematography of Robby Müller (24 Hour Party People) adds a roughness that adds to the experience, the almost haphazard focusing in certain scenes may seem out of place or amateurish to some, but I applaud it. I think the cinematography throughout makes it seem less like a conventional film (not that von Trier has ever been conventional) and more like a documentary, putting you right there in the scene. Combine that with the quick cut editing of Anders Refn (Breaking the Waves), in which he ignores the rules of visual continuity and goes for an emotional cutting of footage. Overall, some may find this style of filmmaking a theoretical and visual mess, but I feel there is much more power, emotion and overall unnerving feel, which is perfect for the subject of the film. If you watch later von Trier films, this technique is often replicated and it’s a winning combination. The story is told in chapters, with each one starting with an extended still shot (sometimes even an illustration or painting) of the landscape and a different piece of 1970’s rock/pop each time. I’m a massive fan of music from that era, so Lars gets an instant thumbs up from me! I told you there were personal aspects to this film! Seriously though, von Trier always knows how to incorporate music in to his films, the juxtaposition of these songs and the theme of the upcoming chapter and film overall is something you don’t see a lot of directors do. That’s a shame as it often adds a whole new emotional and stylistic level to the film (if done right of course).


In a nutshell, Breaking the Waves is an extremely powerful experience that will linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled. What I have chosen to cover in this film is just the tip of the iceberg. You should only read and dissect this film (and films like it) when everyone involved in the discussion has seen it. For those of you who aren’t interested in the theoretical and academic side of cinema, you need not worry. This is a film that everyone can take something from. If you want a gut wrenching and antagonistic film that will deliver many a sucker punch, step right up. This is up there with von Trier’s best. I can’t say that I will be revisiting any time soon, I think I need to watch a lot happier films before I even attempt a re-watch. That day will come because like I said, it’s a brilliant film and I thank Artificial Eye for releasing this so I don’t have to fork out for the Criterion release. In terms of special features you get a trailer, Emily Watson’s casting video, deleted and extended scenes with commentary, a selected commentary from von Trier, interview with Adrian Rawlins and excerpts from Stig Björkmann and Fredrik von Krusenstjerna’s documentary Tranceformer – A Portrait of Lars von Trier. It’s a well packed disc that informs and entertains. Overall, it’s a must have release for a must see film.

If you’re up to the emotional challenge, you can pick up the DVD or Blu-ray from Artificial Eye.


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