Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Breaking The Waves (1996)
Lars Von Trier is probably among the most polarizing directors working in film today. As a person, Von Trier is very eccentric and outspoken, and has managed to piss off a lot of people with his Anti-American comments. His films, which often tend to be allegorical protests against one institution or another, are often just as divisive. You either love them or you despise them. Even as someone who appreciates what he does, he's had films I've hated. But for the most part, I adore him as a director, and amongst many great films, Breaking The Waves, for me, is the best film of 1996.
The basic story is that of Bess (Emily Watson), a devoutly Catholic and simple minded woman living in a somewhat primitive, god-fearing Scottish village. She is engaged to be married to Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oil worker, who spends much of his time off at sea on the oil rig. In this community, it is not all that uncommon, as it seems that most of the men work on the rig, while their wives stay home and go about their lives while waiting for their husbands' return.
In her moments of loneliness, Bess has conversations with God, who speaks back to her through Bess' mouth. While she asks God for his return, hers is an angry, spiteful God, who does send Jan home, but not in the way that Bess had planned: an accident on the oil rig send Jan home as a quadriplegic.
And what follows is a tragic, downward spiral. Jan tells Bess that in order to keep him alive, she should go out and sleep with another man, and come back to him and tell him what it was like. So, she does as instructed, not only from her husband, but by her God as well. This pattern continues, which raises eyebrows from the community, eventually leading to her excommunication from the church and from the townsfolk, who ostracise her as well.
The film is a damning protest against the church. Not religion so much as it is against the organized church distorting the word of God. It's a devastating dilemma between living as God commands versus living as the church commands. She honors her husband's wishes, but in doing so, must accept damnation from the church and deplorable treatment from the townspeople, who treat in her in a manner which goes against everything religion should have taught them.
The film's aesthetic is bleak and grainy, but amazingly realistic. It almost feels like you're watching a home movie. And Emily Watson gave a performance that is at least among my five all-time favorite performances ever.
Now between this and the previously discussed The Secret Life of Words, one might think I have a fetish for oil rig injuries, and who knows, maybe I do. But other than some minor similarities, the comparisons one could make begin and end there. They really couldn't be more different. Von Trier followed Breaking The Waves with the also well regarded Dancer In The Dark and Dogville, both of which are great in their own right. But for me, this one hit me the most.