This emotionally draining film is a complete change of pace for Danish wunderkind Lars Von Trier, whose previous work includes the florid thriller “Element of the Crime”; the brooding exploration of fascism, “Zentropa,” and the comically quirky hospital satire “The Kingdom.” None of these will prepare audiences for “Breaking the Waves,” a soaring story of love and devotion, sacrifice and miracles set in a remote coastal village in north Scotland in the ’70s. The performance from newcomer Emily Watson is the centerpiece of this spiritual journey. Significant critical support for Von Trier’s impressive but flawed epic makes this a must-see for discriminating viewers, although commercial prospects are likely to remain limited to arthouse venues.
Thematically, the film is reminiscent of David Lean’s 1970 “Ryan’s Daughter”– both pictures have a shy, romantic female character, a rugged man she marries and a remote village setting. But whereas Lean opted for a lush look , Von Trier has come up with an unsettling, pseudo-documentary style that may distance many viewers. In terms of dramatic impact, the film is a winner, but Robby Muller’s hand-held widescreen lensing — with frequent vertigo-inducing whip-pans and focus pulling, and Anders Refn’s jagged editing — are a turn-off.
Pic centers on Bess (Watson), a shy, religious girl who lives in an austere community where village elders forbid church bells and sinners are told they’ll go to hell when they die. Bess is to marry Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a raffish adventurer who works on a North Sea oil rig. The union seems unlikely, and Von Trier fails to explain how and why Jan was attracted to this strange young woman who “talks” to God, then answers her own questions in a stern voice. It’s a puzzle, too, given Jan’s presumed appetites, to discover that Bess remains a virgin until her wedding day.
Nevertheless, Bess and Jan are soon blissful, and Von Trier films the early days of their marriage with tenderness and affection. Their joy is cut short when Jan is injured and paralyzed from the neck down. Bess blames herself because she’d prayed to God that Jan would come home to her.
Confined in a hospital, Jan begs Bess to entertain him by having sex with other men and telling him about her experiences. At first reluctant, Bess soon begins sleeping around, believing her actions will cure Jan.
As her behavior becomes known, she’s ostracized by the conservative community , including her troubled mother (Sandra Voe). It turns out Bess is mentally unstable and was hospitalized after her brother’s death.
Film’s last section, filled with savage irony, rewards the viewer’s patience with its power.
Watson is a major find as Bess. Graced with delicate, expressive features, she gives an extraordinary performance, never descending into conventional “mad” scenes, but emerging as a sensitive young woman who will make the ultimate sacrifice.
Skarsgard is fine as Jan and lends welcome nuance to a role he has to play mostly on his back. But the actor is somewhat hampered by a thinly defined character.
This is a major achievement for Von Trier, although there will be debate over his artistic decisions, especially the length, which could be reduced, and the grainy visuals. But the power of the theme and the central performance carry the day.