Z To A: Breaking The Waves (1996)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Lars von Trier became an international sensation with this galvanizing realist fable about sex and spiritual transcendence.  In an Oscar-nominated performance, Emily Watson stuns as Bess, a simple, pious newlywed in a tiny Scottish village who gives herself up to a shocking form of martyrdom after her husband (Stellan Skarsgård) is paralyzed in an oil rig accident.  Breaking the Waves, both brazen and tender, profane and pure, is an examination of the expansiveness of faith and of its limits..

– From the Criterion Website

(Spoilers Ahead)

Revisiting Breaking The Waves couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.  It’s not only one of my favorite films, but marked a turning point in my life.  Now that I’m reaching another, it illuminates emotions and issues that remain as important as ever.  The time in between seems negligible.

The first time I saw this film was by chance.  I was in high school and babysitting a small boy in my hometown, putting him to bed for the evening.  When he fell asleep I returned to the living room, turned on the TV. and began flipping through the channels.  As usual I was looking for something to play in the background while I studied.

After a while I happened upon something unlike anything I had seen before.  There was a woman dancing and jumping around like a child in a dimly-lit room, accompanied by blaring music.  The camerawork was shaky, the editing jagged and unpredictable.  The image was alternately grainy, intimate and out of focus, like it was capturing something unplanned.  The woman drank and smiled.  A man watched her, concerned but disapproving.  I changed the channel then flipped back.  I did this a few times.  Something told me to keep watching.  I had happened upon Breaking The Waves about halfway through the film.  Needless to say, I watched it until the end.

The experience was moving and rare in the way that I was witnessing something that was entirely new to me.  Waves doesn’t abide by the usual rules of filmmaking, taking cues from Dogme 95 (The Celebration in particular) but forming its own aesthetic.  It most likely ignited my desire to be a filmmaker, as well as the interest I took in Lars von Trier’s work over the next fifteen years.

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As I’ve mentioned time and time again, von Trier is a polarizing figure when it comes to his female characters.  What people tend to miss is how these same films attack privilege, patriarchy and the hypocrisy of society at large.  His main offense is using women as the prism to scatter and refract the light illuminating those issues.  When addressing controversy he has gone on record to say his female characters are extensions of his own vulnerabilities, and in Waves‘ case, a fragment of his childhood.

Waves takes place in a patriarchal, devoutly religious town cloistered from most of the outside world.  The place is run by men: men are the only ones allowed to publicly speak; men are the only ones allowed at funerals; men are the only ones whose opinions or actions have any stature or recognition.  This is established in the first scene, in which Bess MacNeill (Emily Watson) meets with the “elders” to ask for permission to marry.  Her betrothed is deemed an “outsider,” and possibly an unsuitable choice.

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As strange as it is, Bess is a product of this environment, where she has been taught that obedience is the highest virtue.  It has fostered her child-like view of the world, what’s right or wrong, and how she must be subservient and humble before an unforgiving God.  We never learn how and where she met Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), who is completely different from the other men she has known her entire life.  They stand before her as they continue to throughout the film- sour, quiet and always wearing black.  It could be inferred that only reason they allow her to marry is because of its religious implications, as well as moving her out of her mother’s house.

As the film continues it becomes apparent the community believes Bess “isn’t right in the head” either, so marriage to an outsider might have been considered convenient and harmless.  What isn’t considered is how much Bess and Jan actually love each other.  This plays out in quiet and occasionally humorous scenes as the couple begin their life together.  Bess finds warmth, acceptance and pleasure she never thought possible.  Jan adores her in a calm, unabashed way.  Everything about him implies that he has known many women throughout his life, but his feelings for Bess are sincere and final.  This culminates in one of my favorite scenes in the film:

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When Jan chuckles, she insists it’s true.  “Don’t laugh,” she says.  He recognizes she means it, and never questions it again.  In a few words she has revealed everything: as meek and silly she seemed to everyone else, she was an outsider waiting for someone to call home.

Over the years I have watched Breaking The Waves and fallen asleep during it, which mirrors a story Selma Jezkova shares in von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark: instead of staying until the end of a musical, she would leave during the “next to last song.” so “the film would just go on forever.”  The same could be said for doing this because Waves keeps going, submerging its audience in troubled waters that become choppier and choppier.   When it debuted in Cannes there were reports of people leaving the theater feeling nauseated or crying.  Björk recalled seeing the film a few years later: “I almost regarded it as physically violent.  The emotions were so strong.  I ran around in my house during the whole film.  I couldn’t sit still, and that has never happened to me before when watching a movie.” (She later signed on as the lead in Dancer In The Dark, clashing with von Trier.)

Nicole Kidman had a similar response: “I saw that film and I was supposed to go out to dinner afterward.  I had to cancel dinner.  I went home, got into bed, curled up in a ball, and cried.  I don’t know why I had such a profound, deep reaction to that film, but I did.  It disturbed my spirit.” (She starred in von Trier’s Dogville, another experience filled with clashes.)

At the center of the story is the question of “goodness,” which I find more relevant than ever.  What is goodness?  I think this is the question audiences struggle with during and after the film.  So do the characters.  Bess and Jan grapple with how to continue loving each other once it’s impossible to express it physically.  Jan makes the first move towards making a sacrifice, telling Bess she can see other men and tell him about it- that way she can continue to feel pleasure although he can no longer give it.  He also insists it will bring them closer to one another and is strictly for his sake (in interviews von Trier confirmed it isn’t and would be torture for the character).

Beth resists the idea but eventually gives in, beginning to believe that every time she unwillingly gives herself to another man it improves Jan’s condition.  This is never proven true or false, but Beth’s faith in the idea is unshakable.  In fact, it gets to the point that no one can shake her out of it- not the elders, her own mother, Jan’s physician Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins), or her devoted friend and sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge).  It’s through Dodo we learn details of Bess’s past: the loss of her brother, her mental fragility and a traumatic stay in a psychiatric ward.  Of course she’s worried and wants nothing more than to protect and temper the intensity of Bess’s feelings.

This could be seen as an antagonistic role, but it’s both vulnerable and compelling in Cartlidge’s hands, creating a portrait of someone also trying to do “good,” namely save someone she loves from herself and everyone else.  (Cartlidge passed away only six years after playing this role, and although it’s only a sliver of her work, this makes me miss her the most.)

Watson counterbalances this with a naked force of will, bringing tension and vitality to Bess’s convictions.  She honestly believes that she is doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences and her suffering.  Throughout the film she has private conversations with God, illustrating the effects of her isolated upbringing and devotion to the church.  It is one of these conversations that make her feel responsible for Jan’s fate, compounding her guilt as he languishes in a hospital.  She asks what she should do and her God repeatedly insists that she “be a good girl.”  Bess surrenders to that idea, believing she could bring about a miracle and save Jan’s life.

As the community gets wind of what’s going on Bess’s reputation withers, but instead of backing down she remains committed to the idea of giving of herself.  She wants to heal her husband and prove her love, which she believes God wants her to do.  In fact, belief is more than an act for Bess.  It’s a commitment.

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Where this leads is a shocking and devastating finale, hence the strong reaction from audiences over the past twenty-one years.  When I first saw it I was spellbound, completely blown away by what I was seeing.  Regardless of its controversy, Waves is an amazing piece of storytelling.  It creates its own miniature world on a small piece of geography then blows it wide open.  The characters are unforgettable.  The landscape is a character too, and just as unforgettable.  It’s unyielding wildness- the vast landscapes, the incessant wind, the ocean crashing against the cliffs- create the backdrop for how turbulent things get.  The effect is like nothing else I’ve seen before or since.

Still, I find myself circling back to this question of goodness.  What I find interesting is how so much of the emphasis has been placed on Bess’s actions over the years, which indicates blame.  It neglects the core of who she is, which is essentially as good as a person could strive to be.  In fact she is good to a fault, as Dodo’s wedding speech and Dr. Richardson’s testimony illustrate.  So where did it go wrong?

I’d argue that this is a case of nature vs. nurture.  Bess was who she was, but couldn’t demonstrate her willingness to do good due to her upbringing and environment.  Being “good” is impossible in an oppressive place, in this case a patriarchal religious society.  Writer Charlotte Gordon once observed:  “When husbands, fathers, and brothers are granted absolute power, their morality vanishes.”  A lack of balance inevitably ends in corruption, and that is the vacuum in which Bess exists.  In one of the film’s most powerful scenes Dodo breaks the elders’ rules, finally confronting them face to face.  “Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to hell,” she warns.  And she’s right.  No one has the right the judge Bess.  That includes the audience.

Due to the judgment of others goodness has always been intriguing issue for me.  How can one be a good person in a world that champions domination, cynicism and placing your own interests over others’?  This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life, and oftentimes I’ve found myself in the same spiritual place as Bess, Selma, Grace, Justine and Joe find themselves in von Trier’s films.  They are seen and treated as anomalies who can be easily exploited or misunderstood in spite of what they’re trying to do or how they’re trying to live.  In some ways it’s a terrible and isolating place to be, but when remaining true to yourself there is no other way.  Bess embodies that, and by the end of Waves seems fully aware of it, for better or worse.  It’s one of the many tragedies in this film.

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Whether seen as positive or negative, Waves elicits a strong response.  It wields a questionable power I can only liken to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a work in which emotion and craft transcend its content.  In short, it shouldn’t work but it does.  There are few directors who are somehow able to pull off this difficult tightrope walk of emotion and logic, like Cary Fukunaga (Jane EyreTrue Detective) or Brit Marling (I Origins), but von Trier might be the master.  It’s a rare kind of magic, although von Trier has flip-flopped on his intentions with Waves, from being incredibly earnest about the power of love to writing it off as far-fetched and stupid.

There is truth in both of those statements, based on where you choose to stand.  From my point of view the ending says it all.  It’s beyond us.  Human rarely understand something good or treat it well.  Breaking The Waves reminds us to try.

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