Cartlidge was not a traditional leading lady, by any means, and while her leading parts were outnumbered by her supporting roles, one of her most high profile, most affecting turns comes in Von Trier’s masterful Breaking the Waves, a film that redefined independent cinema in the ’90s.
The wedding that begins the film is a celebration of liberty for the film’s protagonist Bess MacNeill (Emily Watson), yet is anything but joyous for the residents of the remote, ultra-conservative Scottish village where she has spent her troubled life. It is a trifling formality; but “formality” is something these coastal Scots do exceedingly well. They thrive on it, in fact. The townspeople are unyielding in their devotion to God and order. They don’t take kindly to “outsiders” invading their turf, and the rebellious Bess, who has a history of mental illness and an affinity for glam rock, has fallen passionately in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rigger from a faraway town, much to the consternation of her widowed nurse sister-in law Dodo (Cartlidge).
Director: Lodge Kerrigan
Film: Claire Dolan
Cast: Katrin Cartlidge, Vincent D’Onofrio, Colm Meaney, Patrick Husted, Muriel Maida
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1998
Distributor: New Yorker
Director: Lars von Trier
Film: Breaking the Waves
Studio: Argus Film Produktie
Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1996
Distributor: Artisan Home Video
US Release Date: 1996-11-13 (Limited release)
As an act of God, with whom the pious Bess shares a running dialogue (Watson chillingly provides both voices), cruelly tears Jan away from Bess in the infancy of their relationship, the young woman begins to unravel as the only lover she has known is wrested away from their marital bed. Until Jan (presumably permanently impaired), who is fully endorsed by “God”, comes up with a solution to end her misery: Bess must go out and perform sex acts with strange men to ensure his “recovery”.
Von Trier takes the simple love story and pushes it into daring, exploratory realms by actually having each of Bess’ sexual humiliations correlate with a stage of Jan’s recovery. Bess thinks that what she is doing, that having faith and trusting her husband and her God, is saving a life and saving a marriage. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get Jan back. She is a sacrificial lamb. Her body is the ultimate offering to God, who piteously allows her to go farther and farther into oblivion as Jan gets better and better. Cartlidge’s sensible, protective Dodo is there every step of the way to try and reason with her. She is an archangel to Bess’ fallen saint.
The director has been widely accused of propagating a misogynist ideal of romance and love where the woman must make the ultimate sacrifices in order for the man to go on. Many critics viewed his character as a skewed, bitter comment on what he must think of women in real life. Von Trier is accused of coaxing his actresses (Bjork and Nicole Kidman among them) with maliciousness, and of being supremely emotionally manipulative to get what he needs from his performers. Others, like Cartlidge, thrive on this sort of opportunity and opposition.
While it at first glance Breaking the Waves could be read as a feminist’s nightmare, the claims that Von Trier’s female characters, particularly Bess, are in some way not capable of making their own decisions is preposterous. Dodo tells Bess that a woman “has to have a mind of her own” and it seems that sheer instinct alone propels Bess to the tragic climax of the film, but throughout, she remains clearly in control of her decisions. Because she is a woman, the popular assumption is that she must not be able to make these decisions for herself, and that’s where Von Trier can fairly claim to be re-inventing the feminist perspective, with a powerful female-driven allegorical narrative that leads to a virtual transfiguration.
In addition to Watson setting a new dramatic standard, and Skarsgard deconstructing the traditional romantic leading man, there is the inspirational performance of Cartlidge as Dodo, equally important in the triad of key performances in the film. While Cartlige’s turn is more inward, its sheer power is on par with Watson’s in every way. When it came to recognition during the Breaking the Waves 96 awards season juggernaut, which swept along the film, Von Trier and Watson’s performance, Cartlidge’s quiet fury was perhaps a little bit unfairly overshadowed by Watson’s bravura leading turn.
Here she is another “outsider” who is left behind, after Bess’ brother dies, in a place she really doesn’t understand. Her raison d’atre is to fiercely protect the naïve Bess, and her lioness-like instincts also force her to identify with fellow “outsider” Jan. She is the bridge between the two worlds. Cartlidge’s marvelously-nuanced take on another tired filmic archetype, “the spinster” is a no-frills, stern, and innovative exercise in character acting, and again, she explores the soul of a woman who hadn’t yet been seen onscreen previously, as she did as Claire Dolan.
In the end, at a funeral by the sea, it is Cartlidge’s bereft Dodo who is the one to give the most devastating dressing-down of everyone’s abhorrent behavior towards Bess: “Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to hell,” she fumes to the church elders who think the sinful Bess got what she deserved. Dodo, in effect, restores the balance of fairness and “order” once again to the town long after Bess is gone.
The concept of “balance” flows through her work in 1994’s Before the Rain (and later, in 01’s No Man’s Land), where Cartlidge fixes herself squarely in the middle of the ravages of Eastern European genocide and war, again, putting her money where her mouth was and making films that highlighted the kind of bold, cutting edge spirit of filmmaking that she would become so famously associated with. Her work in these maverick films, which highlight very different scenarios in the Balkan conflicts of the era, is but a cog in the overall mechanics of the directorial visions, but her presence lends a weighty feeling of truth and honesty to the sprawling ruminations on senseless carnage, war (a topic she presciently and preemptively tackled before it came into vogue as a cause celebre post-9/11), the media, risk-taking, and humanity.
Then, speaking of humanity, there was a brief glimpse of the private side of Cartlidge onscreen, appearing for an all-too-brief segment of actress/director Rosanna Arquette’s Searching for Debra Winger. The film celebrates women of distinction in film and acting, and, fittingly, Cartlidge, shares the screen with Katrin Cartlidge Foundation patron and friend Charlotte Rampling. She is a graceful slip of a woman who seems like a shrinking violet at first, but when discussing the role of women in film and where she fit in, you can practically see her face lighting up.
“We were talking about passion, earlier on, as being the main reason for doing…anything. And without it, you couldn’t get up in the morning. All you can do is be passionate about what you do. And none of us, I certainly am certainly not Snow White, you know, I’ve done a few things to pay my rent, which I don’t wholeheartedly believe in but I hate doing it. I hate it. But as far as humanly possible I try not to. I try to do things I feel passionate about, but it’s difficult.”
In another segment of the film, Martha Plimpton (who, when I thought it over, really is a similarly chameleonic performer), breaks it down even further: “I believe in acting. I believe in that. Very strongly. In telling stories. I am so tired of the ‘not enough strong women’ thing. I don’t give a fuck about ‘strong women’; I just want to see characters. I don’t care if they’re ‘strong’, I don’t care if they’re righteous, I don’t care if they’re religious, I don’t care if they’re pure, I don’t care if they’re role models. I don’t care about any of that shit. I want to see characters.
This sort of maverick spirit is what penetrates Cartlidge’s filmography, who created the kind of characters other real people wanted to see, not the fictitious ideals propagated by studio heads or the teenage male ticket buying majority. Since her death, there has been a definite void in this niche, but I remain hopeful that somewhere an aspiring actor will see her remarkable oeuvre, become inspired and bravely follow suit. Fortunately, until that happens, connoisseurs of superlative acting will have these performances to hold them over.
From Breaking the Waves