Lars von Trier (Antichrist) became an international sensation with this galvanizing realist fable about sex and spiritual transcendence. Emily Watson (Punch-Drunk Love) stuns, in an Oscar-nominated performance, as Bess, a simple, pious newlywed in a tiny Scottish village who gives herself up to a shocking form of martyrdom after her husband (Insomnia’s Stellan Skarsgård) is paralyzed in an oil-rig accident. Breaking the Waves, both brazen and tender, profane and pure, is an examination of the expansiveness of faith and of its limits.
Lars von Trier's monumental 1996 film 'Breaking the Waves' not only elevated the director's visibility on an international level, it also worked to demonstrate the kind of philosophically provocative, passionate, and unpredictable filmmaker he would eventually become. As it stands, the film, part of the director's Golden Heart Trilogy, is most certainly von Trier's masterpiece; it is filled with tremendous amounts of warmth and beauty, but also conflict, heartache, and pain told occasionally through invasive, brutal close-ups of faces filled with both ecstasy and anguish, throughout a commanding, parable-like narrative, and as such, the film defies many notions of what constitutes a traditional film, let alone a traditional romance.
Although von Trier focuses much of 'Breaking the Waves' on the juxtaposition between austere realism and transcendent splendor, the film is, from start to finish, very much about the condition of love, and the importance of deliberately breaking with tradition. It is a film that almost gleefully plays with paradoxes and contradiction. And in that notion, there is a powerful metatextual component embedded throughout, as von Trier's cinema vérité style – as demanded by the Dogme 95 movement the director was a part of – compelled him to abandon a great deal of technical conventions that typically define a film of this nature – and yet in his own irascible manner, the director even broke from those rules as well.
Telling of the love between the uncomplicated (and possibly mentally ill) Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) and her soon-to-be husband Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård), the film first institutes a strong sense of place, establishing the fundamentally religious society that makes up Bess' Northern Scotland home. In defining the setting, von Trier begins in close-up on Bess' face, as she unable to prevent herself from smiling at the mere mention of Jan's name while being questioned by the elders of her home – the men who comprise the island's moral authority through the power of the church. Jan, an outsider with apparently no family of his own – outside two consummate buddies who work with him on an offshore oil rig – is ready to marry Bess, but in the deeply patriarchal, deeply suspicious society she lives in, Bess must first seek approval from the aforementioned elders, and then continue to seek it well after they've been wed.
The director wastes little time in depicting the schism between the innate, simple goodness of Bess, and the rigid, repressed "goodness" of the churchgoing folk of her town. During Jan and Bess' wedding reception, Jan and his mates attempt to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople, drinking and reveling as they see others do. Terry (Jean-Marc Barr), one of Jan's closest companions, drinks a beer in front of an old man, playfully crushing the can when he's done. Without uttering a word, the old man answers by drinking a pitcher of some presumably alcoholic beverage, before crushing a glass in is bare hand. This call and response demonstrates the kind of no-nonsense, patriarchal place that is Bess' home; the kind where stone-like men are allowed to talk during church service; where emotions are to be repressed and outsiders and new notions – especially pro-female notions – are looked at with great wariness and mistrust.
This kind of dismal severity with regard to matters of life and religion has inculcated in Bess the need to converse directly with God – which she does by speaking both parts – as a way of dealing with the aspects of her life and the world she cannot control or simply does not understand. This is representative of the antiquated but as-yet-unabandoned repression-based way of thinking that von Trier attempts to assess critically. The contrary, then, would be seen in Jan, with whom Bess seeks total freedom, both spiritually and sexually. In her love for her husband, Bess accepts her experience with youthful exuberance, and in the early days of their marriage, they are together endlessly, in and out of the bedroom, enjoying the splendor of their union in every way possible. This eventually leads the viewer to ponder asks the question: What Jan is seeking in the relationship his work tears him away from for long stretches at a time, especially when he knows his wife's uncomplicated nature becomes precisely the opposite while he's gone. This is just one of many ambiguities von Trier leaves the audience to ponder as the film unfolds.
Soon after, when Jan returns to work, Bess finds herself once more seeking solace in God, praying for her husband to not only return home, but also to never leave her again. It a seemingly cruel twist, Jan is returned to Bess, but only after a severe accident leaves him paralyzed, unable to move, and what's more, unable to love his wife in the physical manner he had previously. Here, Bess' undying goodness is sought out, as Jan – his faculties in question after a severe head injury and several surgeries to repair the damage – asks his wife to be with other men sexually, and then to come and tell him about her experience. As with Jan's attraction to Bess, von Trier never makes it explicit why a husband would ask this of his wife, and yet, despite offering the same level – or lack – of explication, the film intones precisely why Bess would acquiesce to such a demand.
When Jan begins to show signs of recovery, Bess is further convinced the power her endeavor to be with other men has over something seemingly so far out of her control. And she continues to do so, at great physical and emotional risk to her person. "I make love with Jan. And I save him from dying," she tells her deeply concerned sister-in-law, Dodo, played by the late Katrin Cartlidge. The ambiguity of the situation affords any number of metaphysical interpretations of what is happening, to both Bess and to Jan. As her devotion to saving her husband's life increases, so too does the commitment of others to implore her to stop, or to judge her harshly and violently for her actions born out of a desire to heal the man she loves.
In that regard, von Trier's film concerns the idea of compassion taken to extreme ends. It does so by simultaneously becoming a passion play and offering a critique of the religious and social obstinacy on display throughout its narrative. In effect, the transcendence of its denouement and the poignant comment it makes with regard to the idea of misplaced goodness makes 'Breaking the Waves' an incomparable film that seeks to encapsulate the enduring splendor of compassion, goodness, and love, and the many forms they both may take.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Breaking the Waves' comes from Criterion as a three disc set that includes a single 50GB Blu-ray disc and two DVDs. As is now standard for the company's three-disc sets, the film comes in a cardboard sleeve inside of which is a plastic case containing the discs. Along with the film, the set includes a fantastic 31-page booklet featuring an essay by David Sterritt and an excerpt from the 1999 book 'Trier on von Trier.' The spine of the case is marked no. 705.
'Breaking the Waves' has been given a tremendous 4K digital restoration that was supervised by director Lars von Trier. The resulting image and 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer give the film a distinct warmth and attention to detail it has not had in any of its previous home video incarnations. The image has been enhanced so that skin tones, textures, and environments look far more lifelike than before. The picture now maintains a hearty earthen hue that remains consistent throughout, while avoiding making the image look as though it the picture was shot with the aid of filters.
Fine detail is easily detectable throughout, making facial features and textures prominent without losing them in the layer of grain present in the film. Addiitonally, contrast levels are very high, affording the rich, robust black levels that exhibit an impressive and consistent grayscale. Whites are even, and manage to avoid the blown out look of previous iterations of the film, while fine detail remains present even in the darkest sections of the film. Colors are bright, but the palette of the film is mostly drab grays and earth tones. Still, a few bright reds, blues, and greens manage to peek out from time to time, and offer a glimpse of the vividness this transfer is capable of.
There are a handful of imperfections that are still present, but they only work to remind the viewer of the manner in which the film was made, and actually serve to enhance what is overall a very nice viewing experience.
Von Trier also supervised the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix given to this edition of the film and the result is a warm, immersive listening experience that utilizes atmospheric elements as strongly as it does the film's dialogue. In that sense, actors are very easily heard, while variations on accents ring true throughout the film. Additional elements are added, though they are deliberately kept sparse. Still, certain sounds continue to ring true during scenes like Bess and Jan's wedding reception, and during the moments, where automobiles or boats play a part. Because portions of the film can be quieter, the seemingly benign aspects of the mix then become tremendous in their impact, making the even larger moments that much more exuberant in their expression. This is, of course, in reference to von Trier's use of '70s music from Elton John, Rod Stewart, Leonard Cohen, and the magnificent David Bowie.
Most of the dialogue is handled through the center channel, with the odd off-screen addition being handled through the front or sometimes rear channels. The front right and left does most of the heavy lifting with regard to the music cues, which also extends nicely into the rear channels at times. There's some LFE used to punch up the sounds of helicopter rotors and boat engines, but it is handled with great subtlety. Balance and imaging is also top notch throughout.
This is a great sounding mix on a film that surprisingly makes good use from it.
Selected-Scene Commentary (HD, 47 min.) - Features director Lars von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle. The trio talk quite candidly about the manner in which the film was made, their impressions of the actors, and how it was received during test screenings.
• Cutting on Emotion
• Primitive Visual Effects
• Mantels Funeral
•Violent Time Cuts
• All Bible Bashers at Heart
• Rage at Test Screenings
• Directing via Video Link
Stig Björkman (HD, 11 min.) - Film critic Björkman discusses the making of the film and his opinion of Lars as an artist.
• Emily Watson (HD, 17 min.) - Watson discusses the specific challenges that she encountered as a relatively unknown and unproven actor, while playing the complicated character Bess. She also remarks on how the role effectively changed her life.
• Stellan Skarsgård (HD, 13 min.) - The actor talks about working with Lars von Trier for the very first time and how it has resulted in several other collaborations, which have defined his career.
• Adrian Rawlins (SD, 2 min.) - This is a 2004 interview with the actor who plays Dr. Richardson in which he speaks at length about vin Trier's unusual directing style.
Emily Watson's Audition (SD, 2 min.) - This is footage from Watson's audition tape. It also features commentary by von Trier, which the viewer can turn on or off.
Deleted and Extended Scenes – A collection of scenes that include optional commentary by director Lars von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle.
• Deleted Scene 1 (SD, 3 min.) - Jan discusses with his friend the fact that he told Bess to find another lover.
• Deleted Scene 2 (SD, 3 min.) - Bess Besse and Dr. Richardson discuss her mental condition.
• Extended Scene 1 (SD, 3 min.) - An extended version of when Jan's friends take Bess out for a picnic.
• Extended Scene 2 (SD, 2 min.) - This is an extended scene of when Bess goes to her mother's house while being chased through the town by kids.
In Memory of Katrin Cartlidge (SD, 1 min.) - This is a deleted scene featuring Katrin Cartlidge that was selected by Lars von Trier to serve as a tribute to the late actor.
Cannes Film Festival Promotional Clip (SD, < 1min.)
Trailer (SD, 2 min.)
Undoubtedly von Trier's masterpiece, 'Breaking the Waves' is also his most emotionally resonant, fully formed offering to date. Watson and Skarsgård deliver fearless, world-class performances that see them both at the top of their game – which is quite impressive, as this was Watson's first feature film. Filled with tremendous beauty that demonstrates what a captivating – if often deliberately provocative – filmmaker von Trier was and continues to be. The supplements on this disc are quite interesting and manage to offer some new insight into the thinking of the director. With a spectacular image and wonderful sound, this comes highly recommended.