Breaking The Waves (1996) Directed by Lars von Trier

Another sacred cow in the shape of von Trier so soon after Tarantino. I know this film is a favorite of Astrid's. I have also admired this picture when I last saw it over 10 years ago. Since then, von Trier has annoyed me with his exploitative cinema, his clear misogyny, his very public depression, his pretentious Dogme. At the same time I love his provocation (which represent the things that annoy me), and a von Trier film in principle represents something interesting to me, even if the results tend to be disappointing. Crucially, I feel the years have been unkind to Breaking The Waves.

Once the shaky hand held camera work at the start of Breaking The Waves subsides, a very conventional film is revealed. Actually, a very over-dramatic melodrama, which is as populist in tone as von Trier's music choices which litter the two and a half hours.  Emily Watson whom I thought was a revelation when I first saw this picture all those years ago, now seems to be over acting, especially during the films final reel. She's much better in Punch-Drunk Love for example, where she's not trying to say "look at me, I'm a new actress and really good". The less showy performance of Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd stood out for me this time round.

The similarities between David Lean's much maligned yet underrated Ryan's Daughter are obvious, with the casting of Watson who even looks a little like Sarah Miles. Madam Bovary is an influence on both films I suspect, although remote villages and the religious context of Breaking The Waves are something shared with Lean's picture. Watson's stoning by the town's children at the end of Breaking The Waves could be taken directly form Ryan's Daughter.

But what sticks in the throat about Breaking The Waves is the realism that von Trier depicts initially, which he trades in for implausibility half way through the film. Watson's dissent into the town whore is a manipulating tactic which exaggerates the horror of Watson's situation. It is unsubtle and calculating (as much as Bambi?).  von Trier is revealed as a sentimental bunny, wowing the cheap seats. It's a cop out which undermines a sometimes powerful film. This time round, after watching Breaking The Waves, instead of feeling moved,  I felt a little used.

Breaking The Waves was one of the most important films of my teenage years. After seeing it for the first time I was silent for hours, although that's not so strange because I was often silent then for hours in good company. Then I asked my mother to make me a Bess beret and a scarf. I was meticulous about the shape of the beret.

Now, nearly fifteen years later I watched the film looking for what I had so strongly identified with in Bess. She is defined mentally ill by her family. She is a victim of a very strict religious society. She falls in love and discovers sex for the first time. She attempts to cope with her husband's sudden paralysis and dies in the process.

None of the above offers the reason why I loved this movie. Instead, it is the way Bess deals with emotions. She shows them and reacts immediately. Bess does not conform to hiding her sadness or her exhilarated happiness. The immediacy of her emotions was admirable to me, a vulnerable and frail teenager who had learned to hide her core very well. I could live intensely through Bess then.

Breaking The Waves is about goodness. It is about selflessness in the face of bigger powers. It is also about the danger of misinterpreting where those powers lie. Too much selfless good makes you weak, but at 16 I did not think much of that.

On this May 2010 viewing of Breaking The Waves I realized that this movie has contributed in me developing the thought that it is noble to not need anything for myself in life. Don't get me wrong, I was prone to thinking that way before seeing the film. Yet, it has taken me until now to understand that needing something isn't necessarily selfishness, but that needing nothing is selflessness.

Goodbye Bess, I'm going to need something now and a miracle will not be enough.


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