Von Trier's Cinema as Literature in 'Breaking the Waves'

by Paul Risker

8 December 2014

Lars Von Trier’s cinema, particularly in Breaking the Waves, is an acknowledgement of film as an offshoot of literature and the heritage of storytelling.
 
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Breaking the Waves

Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge

US DVD: Import
UK DVD: 10 Nov 2014

What sights does the lens of the camera behold, and what is the preoccupation that draws its gaze? The answer to these questions lies in the identity of the individual for who the camera is an extension, and which serves as a means to project and share the images and thoughts that roll across the celestial heavens of their mind.

In the night sky of Lars Von Trier’s mind, each story and character resembles an individual star, and his films tell their individual stories, whilst showing those whose fates are intertwined. This can be seen in individual films of his, such as Breaking the Waves, or through the creation of constellations that are interwoven by a single thematic preoccupation, such as his depression trilogy, comprising Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymph()maniac.

Von Trier’s gaze is a patient, meditative and penetrating one, through which he pierces the sanctum of his characters and lays them both emotionally and physically bare. Nakedness in Von Trier’s cinema is an emotional and psychological state as much as it is a physical one.

Within the realm of Von Trier’s cinema, we are nestled away in the voyeuristic act, comfortably intruding as his characters are laid bare. In equal measure, their joy and sorrow transmitted across the screen for our entertainment or rather admiration and anxiety. It is a brand of cinema where an intimacy between spectator and film is created as the image awakens and unfolds around us—always guaranteed to create a prickly sensory experience.

However, this variety of cinema equally highlights the contradictory nature of cinema. Whilst it touches our sensibilities and hence we interactive with, regardless of our empathy or sympathy for the characters we are merely passive observers unable to impart our will on the characters. Yet we share in their joy and sorrow in our own feelings that can range from admiration to discomfort, a passive-aggressive interaction.

One’s mind cannot help but go to Jean-Luc Godard’s words, “I don’t think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can’t kiss a movie.” Fast-forward more than 20 years to Von Trier’s fourth feature, Breaking the Waves, and even in the early stages of his career one can see a habit of his to create films to be felt rather than to be watched. His cinema is one to be experienced on a sensual and intellectual level. This fact helps define Breaking the Waves as a near-perfect masterpiece, a disquieting piece of filmmaking that still feels as fresh as the sea breeze.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s recent collaboration with Von Trier (Nymph()maniac) could almost be seen as fated, as their careers align in a neat fashion. Looking back two decades, there is that same sense with Emily Watson, whilst the same could be said for Kirsten Dunst’s turn in Melancholia. Whether this is fanciful contemplation or not, Von Trier’s films represent an opportunity for his actors. From Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson to Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, to become the incarnation of one of Von Trier’s character is an encounter with a grand opportunity. They are roles where an actor will stare deep into the void and physically and emotionally leave a part of themselves behind. It is a transformative moment where the actor wilts and blooms, encountering death and resurrection through what can only be described as a transformative journey; capturing a snapshot of the actor in that series of moments preserved for all time.

The conflicts present at the heart of the drama allow the three words that comprise its title a powerful resonance, casting an image of not only a boundary, but the forcible act of going against the tide. From the insular and religious authority of the small Scottish community’s resistance to Bess marrying an outsider, to the tide turning against Bess and Jan following his accident, the words Breaking the Waves capture the moment of an explosive collision whereby change is inevitable, and empathy, love and the reverence towards God and superstition are exposed as human frailties.

Breaking the Waves offers a powerful meditation on religion and the egotistical assumption of men—the ‘I’ in faith—to interpret something that transcends their mortal servitude. The director effectively slips into the fabric of the narrative the opposing forces of medicine (science) and religion, with Bess the tragic figure caught in the middle. Under Von Trier’s writer’s pen and directorial hand, Bess is presented as a confused figure, with the boundary between her and God broken. This inevitably leads to an interaction whereby the physical and metaphysical merge, God speaking through the individual he made in his image. From a certain point of view, Bess’ intimate engagement offers a meditation on the irrational nature of religion that could be interpreted as a suggestion that religion, along with compassion, may even be a psychological defect within humanity. (Bess’ doctor diagnoses her in this way, as he views that Bess’s condition is a tendency to care too deeply.) Bess becomes the microcosm of wider philosophical issues entangled with science.

Film, by and large, can be perceived as an offshoot of literature. By dividing Breaking the Waves’ narrative into a series of chapters with the use of pictorial title cards, Von Trier created a structural unity. It was a blend of the structure of the novel in picturesque form that eludes to landscape painting that merges with the cinematic art form, his version of a Holy Trinity. This inherently cast his fourth feature as paying a structural tribute to art forms as connected rather than individual entities within the creative spectrum. With two decades having passed since its release, it remains an evocative blend of creative structuralism that contributed to the early foundations laid by Von Trier. If one compares and contrasts Breaking the Waves to Nymph()maniac, Von Trier’s films are artefacts of the evolution of stories from the page to the screen, and the formation of narrative structure long before the cinematic art form emerged. Von Trier’s cinema is therein an acknowledgement to film as an offshoot of literature and the heritage of storytelling. To remove Breaking the Waves from Von Trier’s oeuvre would be to create an unfillable void; it is an elder to many of the stars whose stories have since been told, and one whose human story is powerful that perhaps Roger Ebert’s choice of words “Bold, angry and defiant” are still the most apt to describe it.

There are moments where an experience of genuine power is encountered, and as it pertains to a film the end credits should be the final beat of the heart as the experience begins its descent into the past. Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is such an experience, although Artificial Eye has deemed it necessary to supplement this powerful piece of filmmaking with an array of extras.

From a select commentary track with Von Trier and editor Anders Refn to excerpts from the documentary Transformer—A Film About Lars Von Trier, the assembled extras are a reflection on and from Von Trier. Artificial Eye also looks to the cutting room floor to offer a selection of deleted and extended scenes, along with Emily Watson’s audition tape.

These are a complimentary set of extras that reflect on the distinction between film and literature, whereby the magic of literature is preserved whereas film often feels the necessity to reveal the construction of the final product. When we read a novel we have only the finished product to experience. Film, on the other hand, takes us behind the magic curtain of the creative process to reveal the progression from idea to implementation.

Breaking the Waves

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