Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves; drama, Denmark, 1996; D: Lars von Trier, S: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge, Adrian Rawlins, Jean-Marc Barr, Jonathan Hackett, Udo Kier

Bess MacNiell is a naive cleaner who lives in a rural, strict and very religious community in Scotland. She marries a Danish worker, Jan, but he departs to work at an oil rig. There, he has an accident that leaves him paralyzed. Since he cannot have sex with her anymore, he urges Bess to have sex with other men, claiming that will give him the will to live on. Clumsily searching for men to have sex with, Bess inadvertently gets shunned by the church and the community, while only her friend Dodo and Dr. Richardson are trying to understand her. While going to have sex with a criminal on his ship, Bess is injured and subsuquentlly dies. Jan indeed recovers and while on the oil rig, he and his friends hear bells from the sky.

The movie that established and gave credit to the Dogme 95 movement and Lars von Trier as an acclaimed director, "Breaking the Waves" is a raw, realistic and emotionally devastating film that still holds up well, though it is a tiny bit overhyped and overrated (for instance, some critics even called it the "best film of the 90s"). The first half is brilliant and indeed excellent: Emily Watson is simply fantastic as the naive and simple-minded Bess, but with a heart of gold, and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as best actress. She is able to transmit the elementary human emotions in Bess: in the scene where she is hypnotized while watching a movie in cinemas, Jan is seen observing her, as if he is falling love with her innocence, not with her personality. Likewise, the honeymoon sequence also works surprisingly fine and is so natural: in any other film, when Jan lies on the bed naked and Bess starts giggling when she observes his penis until they both burst into laughter, the scene would have ended up banal and unintentionally comical, but here it seems entirely sincere. Von Trier insists on hand-held camera, with nervous, shaky frames, edits and "grainy" cinematography, sometimes even with blurry scenes, that look as if they came from someone's home video, but thanks to Watson's monumental performance, all those features and eventual flaws take a back seat.

Unfortunately, the second half is by far a lot weaker, and at times even slightly gives the impression as if von Trier was himself not sure what he wanted to say. It is not clear why Jan, after getting paralyzed in an accident, would persuade Bess to have sex with other men. At best, he wanted her to find a mediator, a third person that would keep their physical circle pulsating or was hoping that she would fall in love with someone else and start a new life with a healthy man, but at worst, he seems like a "dirty old man who wants to play peeping Tom", as Dr. Richardson put it. Neither is it clear how Jan could have overlooked the fact that Bess would get in a lot of trouble for sleeping around with men in a such religious community. Again, at best it could be seen as an allegory that people tend to find causality in everything, such as Bess who thinks that by having sex with other men she will help Jan heal, but the explanation is not entirely convincing. These heavy handed ploys, a few overlong sequences and some melodramatic-theatrical moments (Jan trying to commit suicide with the pills; Bess getting thrown out of the church) inevitably come off as flaws, though they do pave the way for a very tragic and touching ending that has religious symbol of bells reminiscent of Tarkovsky and Bresson. Despite the unbalanced nature of the first and second act, this is still a very strong film with a few great moments that pay off (the use of Bowie's song "Life on Mars?" in the final chapter).


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