“A simply love story,” is Lars von Trier’s own description of Breaking The Waves. And, knowing that trickster-provocateur of Danish cinema as we do, we’d have to have brains of purest Gouda to take his words at face value. There is, of course, nothing in the least simplistic about his 1996 Cannes Grand Prix winner, a melodrama that looks like a documentary.
Philosophically complex, spiritual but anti-religious, harrowing yet hopeful… the first instalment in the director’s ‘Golden Heart Trilogy’ (followed by 1998’s The Idiots and 2000’s Dancer In The Dark) essentially sees him pulling apart this ‘faith’ stuff to see what makes it tick. And, OK, yes, fundamentally it’s also a simple love story. A pretty unique one.
Set amid a remote ’70s Scottish coastal community, it sees childlike Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) marrying an ‘outsider’, Stellan Skarsgård’s easy-going oil rigger Jan – immediately incurring the displeasure of the grim Calvinist Elders. All birds-nest beards and brimstone, these killjoys have even removed their own church bells, lest their happy jangly peals inadvertently put the fun back in fundamentalism.
When Jan’s paralysed in an accident, a guilt-ridden, mentally unstable Bess agrees to his possibly brain-damaged request for her to take lovers and report back, so they might continue to make love by proxy. For Bess, devotion to her man equals devotion to God, and she proceeds to prostitute/martyr herself to try and restore him. No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well.
Shot on a seasick camera with the colour virtually bled out, it’s a shattering experience made unforgettable by Watson’s astonishing screen debut. Whether howling at the sea, beaming with delight at her new husband’s post-coital snoring, or speaking with God (and answering herself back in His voice) like a little girl talking to herself on a toy telephone; all the while her eyes gleam like misted headlamps in the Hebridean fog.
Compared with some of von Trier’s later provocations – the graphic mutilations and talking fox of Antichrist spring to mind – it’s all strangely dignified. There’s an overriding humanity here that’s missing from some of those subsequent films, beautifully encapsulated in a casual exchange between the two lovers, in the days before it all goes horribly wrong. “I like church bells,” sighs Bess wistfully. “Let’s put them back again.”
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