“I would love to be religious, but I’ve tried…”
—Lars Von Trier
In recent years Lars Von Trier has been extremely open about his cinematic influences, particularly the debts his oeuvre owes to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky (to whom he dedicated his 2011 film Melancholia) and Ingmar Bergman. Like the two other European masters, Von Trier seems keen on getting to the essence of what conforms the human soul, something particularly interesting because the director himself is an atheist. His parents were, according to him, “atheists by belief” and he grew up in a household where the image of god was utterly non-existent. This makes his films a mystery upon themselves, because they all seem to be profoundly soulful, and even his darkest projects often have characters who usually see flashes of the divine within the misery of their existence.
In the “Golden Heart Trilogy”, Von Trier explored soulfulness through characters who are so gentle and good that the world seems to take pleasure in destroying them. In Breaking the Waves, which also happens to be the initial volume in the trilogy, Von Trier focuses on the perils of fanaticism as he tells the story of Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a young Scottish woman with a history of mental issues, who takes comfort in the conversations she has with god (who replies to her with her own voice). A member of the local church, a conservative Calvinist congregation, Bess seems not to care what the world thinks of her, which she proves by marrying oil-rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), who spends most of his time at the rig, leaving Bess alone, asking god to bring her husband back.
When Jan is away they share their sexual fantasies through short phone calls in which Bess seems to be using the very same tone she uses when god replies to her. Then one day Jan suffers a terrible accident that leaves him paralysed. He is flown back to the mainland, leading Bess to believe the accident was her fault, because it’s what she asked god to give her. After attempting suicide, her husband asks one favor of her; to find a lover with whom to have the sexual relations she won’t be able to have with him any more, and to come back to him with stories of her sexual encounters. Heartbroken, Bess spirals down into some sort of combination between terrifying madness and religious ecstasy and decides to perform the ultimate sacrifice to help her wash away her sins.
Peculiar for its naturalistic setting, acting and texture, Breaking the Waves is one of the landmark films of the ‘90s. Sexually frank, explicit and often tough to sit through, the film announced the arrival of Von Trier as a master conjurer of images, who was unafraid to see spirituality in the face and confront it. The Danish director seemed to have come from the school of his legendary countryman Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also found parallels between mental illness and the divine.
What still remains breathtaking to see is Von Trier’s sympathetic approach to his subjects, especially when it comes to Bess. While inferior directors would have approached her with cynicism and a cruel smirk, Von Trier seems to come from a place of love. He is often accused of misogyny for the tasks he imposes on his actress, but nobody watching Breaking the Waves can say that the director looks at Bess as someone made to be mocked and judged.
For someone who seems so insecure about his own role in the universe, Von Trier allows his characters to exist within worlds of their own. If this is part of some god complex, we can’t really know, because the film doesn’t indulge itself with grandiose philosophical statements or discourses. In fact, its climax is one of the most surprising moments in all of contemporary cinema for both its boldness and mystery.
Breaking the Waves remains a film that seems to reveal new layers on every viewing, at first you might be mesmerized by the courageous work of Watson who doesn’t give a single false step as Bess (a role originally offered to Helena Bonham Carter). Later, you might be engulfed by the film’s aesthetics which seem to draw pleasure out of pointing out the lack of realism found in even the most “realistic” stories put on film and on different days you might just give yourself in fully to the potent melodrama reminiscent of classic Hollywood. If only for its artistic value, Breaking the Waves will always be a reminder that we can come in touch with the divine even when we’re unsure of its existence.
Breaking the Waves has been given the Criterion Collection treatment and it might be one of its finest releases to date. Presented in a new 4k digital restoration, the film showcases Von Trier’s fine eye for detail and composition. A rich roster of bonus materials includes interviews with the cast, excerpts from Watson’s audition tape plus deleted scenes and a commentary with the director. All we can do now is hope Criterion will release the rest of the “Golden Heart” trilogy…