It’s hard to remember now, but Lars Von Trier had a radically different reputation back in 1996, when Breaking The Waves premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous features, from The Element Of Crime (1984) to Europa (1991, released in the U.S. as Zentropa), had been audacious exercises in pure style, offering viewers little in the way of an emotional foothold. Breaking The Waves, made shortly after Von Trier collaborated on a TV miniseries called The Kingdom (1994), was an act of deliberate reinvention—his experiment to see what would happen if he deprived himself of every cinematic tool he’d relied on throughout his career. This somewhat monastic approach became known as the Dogme 95 movement, but Breaking The Waves isn’t technically a Dogme film (his follow-up, The Idiots, would be); it breaks many of the rules, particularly in its use of breathtakingly artificial chapter stops. All the same, it’s very much in the Dogme 95 spirit, and introduced the world to a Lars Von Trier who was capable of subordinating everything to heart-wrenching truth.
It was also the first Von Trier film built around a single magnificent performance. When Helena Bonham Carter backed out of the project at the last minute (reportedly due to concern about its sexual content, which seems quaint given what Charlotte Gainsbourg has since gotten up to in Antichrist and Nymphomaniac), he plucked an actress named Emily Watson from obscurity and handed her the opportunity of a lifetime, which she repaid with a sincerity that’s often physically painful to watch. Her character, Bess, who lives in a strict religious community somewhere on the coast of Scotland (the film appears to be set in the 1970s), has just married Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oil-rig worker whose job requires him to be away at sea for weeks at a time. When Bess begs God to send him home to her, Jan immediately, in monkey’s-paw tradition, has an accident that leaves him all but quadriplegic, unable to ever make love to Bess again. In his despair, he asks her to sleep with other men and tell him about it, and Bess increasingly views wantonness as the path to a miracle cure.
Laid out like that, Breaking The Waves’ plot sounds fairly distasteful, and there were accusations of misogyny at the time of the film’s release (which have intensified in some quarters as subsequent Von Trier heroines—Dancer In The Dark’s Selma, Dogville’s Grace—have endured similar abuse). As Watson plays her, though, Bess justifies a doctor’s sheepish diagnosis that she suffers primarily from being too good. Discovering her sexuality early in the film, she regards Jan’s body and her own with the giddy shyness of a curious child; when confronted with the hole Jan’s absence will leave in her life, she emits a shriek that makes a mockery of polite society’s conventions regarding acceptable expressions of love. Throughout the film, Bess talks to God, who answers her with stern admonishments (delivered by Bess in a deep, authoritarian voice); Von Trier maintains careful ambiguity about whether these conversations are genuine or merely a sign of Bess’ mental instability, though the controversial final shot implies, at the very least, that Someone was listening.
Terrific though it is, Breaking The Waves is, in one respect, an unusual choice for the Criterion Collection, which has released it in its now-standard DVD/Blu-ray combo package. Though shot on celluloid, this is one cruddy-looking movie; Von Trier and cinematographer Robby Müller prioritize the performances at all costs, and much of the film is so dimly or harshly lit that it resembles that era’s low-grade digital imagery, with grain prominent enough to render even foreground objects indistinct. (On the other hand, this makes the painterly chapter stops, each accompanied by a classic ’70s rock tune, all the more striking by comparison. Purists will be happy to hear, incidentally, that David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” has been restored to the Epilogue portrait, after having been replaced by Elton John’s “Your Song” for previous video releases due to rights issues.) Having successfully purged himself of his obsession with visual beauty for its own sake, Von Trier would slowly reintroduce artificial elements into his work over the next two decades, while retaining this film’s emotional directness. That amalgam made him who he is today… but Breaking The Waves showcases him at his most pure and vulnerable, and it remains a bracing experience.