Von Trier’s extravagantly conceived neo-realist fable seems now like a monumentally significant film in the cinema of the new millennium. Laying out Von Trier’s grandiosly tragic and melodramatic journey of her golden heart heroine under the handheld griminess of Von Trier’s shaky documentary style creates a strange but inspired cinematic experience unlike anything that came before it. Not only did it jump start the Dogme movement but legitimized the lo-fi aesthetic for all filmmakers to come.
Breaking the Waves (1996) dir. Lars Von Trier
Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgaard, Jean-Marc Barr
By Alan Bacchus
The modus operandi of Von Trier in making Breaking the Waves is well documented but still an important element to the significance of this film. It was the mid 90’s, Von Trier had already been celebrated for his two of his early features Element of Crime and Zentropa, two supremely aesthetically bold films which Von Trier freely admits himself were exercises in style, devoid of any human emotional connection. As Von Trier wrestled with rethinking his cinematic voice he was conceiving with Danish colleagues the stripped down Dogme 95 Rules, famously unveiled at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. And while Waves doesn’t present itself with the Dogme stamp of approval, it serves as the first proof of concept for the influential threadbare method of storytelling.
The character of Bess (Watson), a naïve and virginal heroine is ripped from the pages of Von Trier’s childhood book of fairytales, an impressionable and simplistic nave who tragically sacrifices body and soul for her loved ones. In this case, it’s Bess’ love for the rugged Scandavanian oil rigger Jan (Skarsgaard) who sweeps her off her feet and marries her despite the objections of her ultra-orthodox church. But just as Bess is tripping the life fantasic in a haze of orgasmic bliss Jan is injurred on his rig and paralized with no chance of recovery.
Thus begins the tragic trajectory of Bess, a theme we would see emerge in most of Von Trier’s work after this point. Often accused of mysogny for the maltreatment of his female characters, Bess’s arc is really just great screenwriting, stacking up the obstacles for his heroine to surmount in order to reconcile their existence. Jan’s morphine-fueled edict to Bess to sleep with other men, and then confess the details to him at his bedside becomes the leap a faith which Bess makes in order to heal Jan.
Von Trier depicts each of Bess’ sexual trysts as painful and uncomfortable as possible, each one escalating in depravity and danger. Von Trier’s indictment of the rigidity of orthodox religion is in our faces from the beginning, but he’s clear not to dismiss power of the faith and an allmighty from above controlling our destinies. His spiritual optimism is not subtle either. In fact as Von Trier lays out of the trajectory towards the enlightening finale, under anyone else watch the overly manufactured emotional journey would have been unbearable. Thus is the genius of Von Trier’s aesthetic choice to strip down the cinematic flourishes for raw documentary-like realism.
We believe the events, however contrived, which befall Bess because of the subliminal effect of the lo-fi techniques. The handheld camera, jump cuts and seemingly natural, unrehearsed dialogue counteract the supremely melodramatic grossly overwritten plotting.
So maybe the joke is on us, being played like a fiddle by one of cinema’s notorious ‘enfant terribles’. But I don’t believe it, however surly I believe Von Trier to be a sentamentalist at heart and one of the great storytellers of our generation.
Breaking the Waves is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection