Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge
It broke more than my waves
Dancer in the Dark is one of the most emotionally devastating films I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the extremely few films to actually make me cry and its sheer power makes it Lars Von Trier’s masterpiece for me. When I heard about Breaking the Waves and how it’s part of the same ‘Golden Hearts’ trilogy as Dancer in the Dark, I just had to see it. I’m not a normal cinema-goer who goes out to see mainstream films for entertainment. Of course, I do do this from time to time. I’m not a complete film snob. However, the films which I admire the most are the ones which pack a strong emotional punch which you never forget. I love depressing films which stun me into silence and play on my mind for days after seeing it. Breaking the Waves is one of these films.
Whilst I personally don’t think it’s quite as good as Dancer in the Dark (I just love how Dancer in the Dark is a musical and everything) it’s certainly not far off, and is definitely one of Lars Von Trier’s (a director I admire very much) greatest films and one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen period. Just like Dancer in the Dark, the film opens on a happy and humorous note. Our hero, Bess is getting married to the love of her life, Jan and everyone’s having a wonderful time. Not least is Bess who discovers the magical powers of making love. A stark contrast to the loveless sex she has during the crushing final hour of the film.
Lars presents their love as an honest and pure one. It’s cleverly against the backdrop of a god-fearing, miserable Scottish village that aren’t very Christian at all. It shows how damaging religion can be to someone as childlike and naive as Bess, who regularly plays out conversations with God and imagines Him as a cruel and impatient old man with no sympathy for anyone. Lars takes his time in telling the story. The first part of the film looks at how in love Bess is with Jan. She’s absolutely infatuated with him and is outrageously devastated when he has to go back to the oilrigs for some time. Emily Watson makes Bess’ pain feel all the more overwhelming with her realistic portrayal of hysteria.
Like most of Lars’ films, Breaking the Waves is broken up into a series of chapters. Each one becomes more disturbing as the film goes on. Many have accused Lars of being sadistic and nihilistic in his treatment of Bess, however I disagree. If Lars wanted to be sadistic then he would have been much more explicit in the latter scenes of the film and wouldn’t have given as much time to allow Bess to develop as a character. As I said before, the film is very patient in telling the story and whilst I wasn’t bothered or bored by this at all others may be. It’s important to be patient with the film and allow yourself to immerse yourself in it. The earlier scenes which depict Bess anticipating Jan’s arrival are slow but extremely important. It just shows how much Bess is in love with Jan, and how childlike and charming this love is.
When Jan is paralysed we feel Bess’ pain. She sticks by him and just wants to be with him. It’s all the more tragic that this is her undoing. Bess’ descent into sexual degradation and humiliation becomes increasingly more painful to watch. It’s all the more excruciating as the film is shot on Lars’ signature raw hand-held camera which gives the film an incredible sense of documentary realism. There’s nothing you can do but weep for poor Bess and her immature ways of thinking. I didn’t cry, but I almost did. Tears filled in my eyes in some parts and a very potent lump formed in my throat. It’s an incredibly powerful look of a woman’s life spiralling into madness.
Breaking the Waves is a powerful and heart-breaking piece of cinema. Emily Watson is incredible as Bess and really does immerse herself in her character. I don’t know who else Emily was up against in the Oscars, but I’m pretty sure she should’ve won. The surrealistic ending is bound to infuriate many, but for me it just confirmed the film as a masterpiece. It was the perfect way to end and made the film all the more powerful. It’s not an easy watch and it’s extremely depressing, but it’s also one of the most heart-breaking experiences I’ve had watching a film. Lars Von Trier has created a timeless masterpiece. One which has the power to move, compel and inspire.