Lars von Trier’s masterpiece is almost twenty. Starring Emily Watson, in what surely ranks as one of the most remarkable big screen debuts, Breaking the Waves (1996), like most classics, appears to have imprinted into its fabric an essential and resolute splendour. Despite premièring nearly two decades ago the film’s mixture of doom-laden melodrama, intense spirituality and philosophical investigation remains an utterly devastating viewing experience. The grungy, no-frills vérité qualities belied a deceiving aesthetic. Like a proto Dogme 95, and like that cinematic vow of chastity, immediately ignoring all the rules set out, von Trier utilised everything from computer-generated imagery to bleaching processes.Breaking the Waves might well look indebted to the realist school and tradition, but is in fact the exact opposite. The occasional use of jump-cuts and, most vitally, breaking the fourth wall, are usually tactics employed to heighten a picture’s showy artifice, yet here draws the viewer further into the battle between Bess’ (Watson) pious convictions and the profane world represented by Dr Richardson (Adrian Rawlins). Von Trier, a true master of technique and film language, magically reworked what is often a counter-cinema gesture in order to bring the viewer into more intimate contact with his heroine. Bess, acknowledging the presence of Robby Müller’s camera, sometimes offering a gentle smile - is a subtle gesture that is simultaneously delightful and like a stab to the heart.
Watson gave Bess McNeill a William Blake-like zeal, and yet it is never daft or overwrought. The entire cast is uniformly excellent, including the late Katrin Cartlidge as the increasingly concerned sister-in-law, and Stellan Skarsgård as the paralysed husband whose sexual fantasies lead his wife down the road to ruin, but Watson is extraordinary on a whole another level. The performance is a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky; something miraculous and yet frightening. The capturing, too, of many facets of the character is key to its overall effectiveness and Bess watching Lassie Come Home (1943) at the pictures should be talked about in the same exalted breath as Anna Karina’s teary-eyed viewing of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962). Breaking the Waves might be tough going, such is its narrative course, but there are doses of humour and becalming beauty.
And with a certain trepidation comes the final half-hour. The use of chapter headings perhaps braces the viewer for what unfolds. Still, ‘Bess’ Sacrifice’ is close to unbearable. And yet in the accompanying epilogue, von Trier has devised a sort of ecstatic truth for the viewer to ponder. For have the powers of good and love not ultimately triumphed? Breaking the Waves dares to end with bells ringing out in the sky above the North Sea. An impossible shot, a divine image.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn