Lars von Trier is a filmmaker whose reputation is hard to avoid, even if you have not seen any of his work. He refuses to spend any time in America, he was kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago for calling himself a Nazi, and for his downright sadistic relationship with the actors in his movies. But this Danish provocateur’s notoriety is mostly derived from his filmography, which is defined by unflinching portrayals of sexuality, class warfare, depression and in the case of 2009’s “Antichrist, talking foxes and genital mutilation. His cinematic universe isn’t exactly a picnic.
1996’s “Breaking the Waves” is emblematic of this well-known bleakness. Set in an isolated village on the Scottish coast with an affinity for the Old Testament, the film centers on Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a young, wide-eyed and deeply troubled young woman who is about to be married to Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a vivacious oilman who immediately sticks out among this rigid, puritanical community, which views something as mundane as church bells as a blasphemous intrusion. Bess is a fragile soul. She has a strong bond with God, so much so that she has conversations with Him that may or not be psychotic delusions. She’s been praying her entire life for a man like Jan, which is why she is destroyed when he has to leave her for his job on the oil rig for weeks at a time. She selfishly prays for his return, a wish that is granted…when Jan is left paralyzed from the neck down after an on-site accident. Jan is as fiercely devoted to Bess as she is to him, but there is a selfishness that defines him, which leads to an unusual request; Jan wants Bess to have sex with other men, and tell him in explicit detail the specifics of each encounter. On the surface, it looks like a desperate attempt to keep a suddenly compromised marriage alive. But Jan says he’ll die if she doesn’t go through with it, so the whole deal is really emotional blackmail.
“Breaking the Waves” is a story of a woman who’s been subjected by selfish men her entire life, trying to please everyone while rarely finding true happiness for herself. It’s a sometimes savage look at the abuse of desire and faith.
But most importantly, it is a masterpiece.
This film is a sometimes overwhelming experience, as we watch a damaged, naive soul battered by the unforgiving landscape and culture she’s been surrounded by her whole life. But it’s impossible to come away from this film, whether you’re entranced or repulsed by it, without at least thinking about what von Trier is trying to say.
The director found a perfect vessel in Watson, who gives what is one of the greatest performances in contemporary cinema. Those enormous blue eyes that bulge with ecstatic wonder and narrow with frustrated subjugation, all funneled through that thick Scottish brogue, Bess is a person who has spent her life at the mercy of selfish men, both real and metaphysical. The church that is like her second home feels like a tomb; women aren’t allowed to speak during services or even attend funerals. Bess was bred to live according to absolutes. Know your place, repress yourself sexually, wait for a husband to come and be prepared to mourn him when he inevitably dies. “You must learn to endure” is the credo her cruel mother bestows upon her. Bess doesn’t know how to compromise, and Watson makes her into a heartbreaking, unforgettable portrait of bruised womanhood.
Von Trier’s approach is stripped to the bone; the handheld cameras make the already gloomy Scottish countryside into a grainy wasteland of brown and tan, tarnished but able to contain moments of great beauty, portrayed in landscapes that underscore the chapter cards that divide the film. Watson throws numerous glances to these cameras like they’re her only friend, as if we are sharing in her ecstasy and tragedy. But his approach to these characters is much more multi-faceted. As Bess desperately tries to please her husband via sexual torment with strangers, it’s easy to think this film is an exercise in misogyny, an accusation von Trier’s detractors often lob. But it’s not Bess’ fault she is sent on this journey. “Breaking the Waves” is a fable of selfish men and the damage they inflict on the women around them when they are subjugated. Bess is a virgin on her wedding day; she is released by the liberation provided by sex and the glam-rock soundtrack consisting of David Bowie and Mott the Hoople. Jan, who weaves between charisma and cruelty in the hands of the reliably great Skarsgård, thinks he’s doing Bess a favor by sleeping with any man she chooses, but it really is monstrous; Bess is a waif who learns far too late too start questioning what her world has taught her. Lars von Trier doesn’t have any misgivings about putting the women in his film through great persecution, but its apparent, in this film at least, that there is compassion in his approach.
“Breaking the Waves” is devastating, but it isn’t a slog. Great films can take on the characteristics of their protagonist, and this film is often as joyous, searching, howling and brutalized as Bess, who gives her soul to God and her body to her husband, both sacrifices unable to give her the happiness she wants more than anything. This movie’s notorious creator is trying to tell us something that should be universal: unconditional love and blind faith often devolve into cruelty, unconditional compassion, whether its from your countrymen or, as suggested in the film’s haunting, surprisingly hopeful final shot possibly from a higher power, is always essential. So is the movie.