January 10, 1997 in Seven

Style Hampers Message In ‘Breaking The Waves’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Here’s what you need to know about “Breaking the Waves,” the film by Danish writer-director Lars von Trier that is attracting so much attention among art-film circles:

It won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival in April.

It was rated among the best films of 1996 by such publications as the Los Angeles Daily News, New York Times, Boston Globe, Orange County Register, Detroit Free Press, Philadelphia Inquirer and Entertainment Weekly magazine.

Director von Trier and actress Emily Watson have received Golden Globe nominations. And they, as well as the film’s cinematographer, won honors from the National Society of Film Critics.

Many of the critical reactions to the film are similar to that of Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman, who wrote that the film “might be described as a mystical cinema-verite fairy tale, a theological daydream of martyrdom and redemption, or the most passionate love story of the year.”

So… bear all that in mind as I try to explain my own lukewarm response to the film. For if “Breaking the Waves” is the work of art that so many critics seem to think it is, then it’s clear that I just didn’t get it.

As always, though, I have reasons for my reaction.

“Breaking the Waves” involves a young woman who lives on the bleak coast of Scotland in a male-dominated religious community marked by its Calvinist severity. While a life-long resident of the village, Bess (Watson) remains a separate entity.

She experiences her own relationship with God, to whom she talks out loud on a regular basis, and she has filled her only other pressing need with a man named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) who works on an off-shore oil rig and whom she marries despite his being an outsider.

The only crack in her sense of self-determination concerns religion. Bess is so happy, so fulfilled, so bursting with passion for Jan that she can’t stand to be separated from him. Yet there is no work for him in the village, and so he must return to the oil rig; and as there is no place for her at sea, she must stay at home.

Which is a situation she hates. And so she prays for it to end, which it does but not in the way she imagined: Jan, badly hurt in an accident, returns home paralyzed.

Thus begins Bess’ spiritual sojourn. For she is convinced that her selfish prayers caused Jan’s accident, and so she must atone for her sins. The combination of the guilt she feels, twisted by the harsh demands of her religion and by an embittered Jan’s sadistic desires, leads Bess into Mary Magdalene territory - and beyond.

Von Trier, whose previous works include the meditative-like “Zentropa” and a brilliant five-hour miniseries for Danish television called “The Kingdom,” clearly is attempting to convey a larger message here about love, passion, innocence, spirituality and meaning of it all. But his style works against whatever it is he’s trying to say.

First of all, Watson’s Bess is a hard sell as a spiritual presence. Good throughout, especially when she carries on a conversation with herself - affecting the deep voice of God one moment, reverting to her own meek voice the next - Watson nevertheless makes Bess seem more simple-minded than saintly.

Then there’s von Trier’s irritating visual style. His “Zentropa” was a silky blend of contrasts, the blacks and whites as starkly portrayed as any ‘30s-era masterpiece. In “The Kingdom,” he adopted a sepiatinted, minimalist look that served to underscore his attempt to explore the mysteries of a hospital haunted by ghosts.

In “Breaking the Waves,” which he has split up into chapters - carrying titles such as “Life With Jan” and boasting the film’s only examples of color - von Trier directed cinematographer Robby Mueller to resort to documentary-like methods. This means the jittery shots, extreme closeups, herky-jerky quick cuts and fluttery focus of a hand-held camera.

Now, I’m as much a fan of experimental film as anyone. But when a cinematic style keeps taking me out of the story, I figure the filmmaker has a reason for doing so - the way, say, Bertolt Brecht did for audiences at his stage plays, urging them to attend to his philosophical points instead of getting lost in bourgeois escapism.

Von Trier, though, is no Brecht. His points, philosophical, theological or otherwise, are too opaque to easily recognize. They depend on his storytelling ability to be convincing, the very ability that is undercut by the look-at-me filmmaking style he is so eager to employ.

So despite its decent acting, starkly beautiful settings, intriguing characters and von Trier’s undeniable talent - especially enjoyable are his use as interlude of such songs as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” - “Breaking the Waves” ends up feeling like a jumbled mess.

Yes, it is a morality tale, one that expresses an ironic life-lesson, and it does boast several memorable moments of magical realism. But that hardly makes it a film for the ages.

Much less “the most passionate love story of the year.”

, DataTimes MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “BREAKING THE WAVES” **-1/2 Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Adrian Rawlins, Jonathan Hackett Running time: 2:36 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Breaking the Waves:” Steven Rea/Philadelphia Inquirer: “Breaking the Waves” is a fearless undertaking that holds itself up for ridicule, or to be held in awe. Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Lars von Trier’s intimate epic, “Breaking the Waves,” is that rarest of films - one that dares to be about spirituality, about people with an inner life. Beth Pinsker/The Dallas Morning News: It’s impossible not to fall in love with Emily Watson from the opening moments of “Breaking the Waves.”

These sidebars appeared with the story: “BREAKING THE WAVES” **-1/2 Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Adrian Rawlins, Jonathan Hackett Running time: 2:36 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Breaking the Waves:” Steven Rea/Philadelphia Inquirer: “Breaking the Waves” is a fearless undertaking that holds itself up for ridicule, or to be held in awe. Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Lars von Trier’s intimate epic, “Breaking the Waves,” is that rarest of films - one that dares to be about spirituality, about people with an inner life. Beth Pinsker/The Dallas Morning News: It’s impossible not to fall in love with Emily Watson from the opening moments of “Breaking the Waves.”

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