• Breaking the Waves:
  • BREAKING THE WAVES, Emily Watson, 1996
  • BREAKING THE WAVES, Emily Watson, 1996
  • BREAKING THE WAVES, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, 1996

Breaking the Waves

Too low to display

The film's sense of exhilaration, at its heart, derives from a simple but powerfully effective contrast: It's a faith-based film with an anarchist punk-rock aesthetic. This is a rule-breaking movie that decries the fascist suppression of a conventionally uptight religious system that concludes with the implication that these barbarous rules yielded beauty inadvertently anyway. The film is shot in a 180-degree-rule-annihilating fashion—reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah's late work—that stitches together multiple takes within milliseconds of one another with pointedly little attention paid to continuity. Physical consistency is a bourgeoisie dodge to von Trier, yet another rule that exists at the expense of emotional honesty. In later films, this rationale would feel like a dodge itself, an excuse to stitch sequences together haphazardly, but Breaking the Waves makes a hell of a case for this fusion of the found-object element of von Trier's Dogme movement with an occasionally deceptively tossed-off burst of expressionism that recalls Dreyer and Bergman.

Breaking the Waves could be said to function as a working prototype of the sick existential joke that director Lars von Trier has since forged an international career perpetrating, but there's a crucial difference: This film finds the gifted but often didactic director in an active dialogue with his characters and the actors playing them. Von Trier is up for surprises here, and he welcomes contradiction and disruption from his master plan if it allows for recognizably and ineffably human resonance. The gleeful shock tactics of or have surprisingly little effect; you're numbed and rendered immune early on to the outrageousness because the characters are ciphers at the service of a preordained rant. But in Breaking the Waves, the tiniest gestures ripple with an erotic danger that appears to be emanating from a sense of the potential revelation of true chaos. Love and cruelty are so blurred in this film that you respond to emotion as an undefinable cosmic purity.


BREAKING THE WAVES, Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson, 1996

This World Premiere chamber opera by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek is based on the 1996 Academy Award-nominated film by Lars von Trier. Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, Breaking the Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill, a religious young woman with a deep love for her husband Jan, a handsome oil rig worker. When Jan becomes paralyzed in an off-shore accident, Bess’s marital vows are put to the test as he encourages her to seek other lovers and return to his bedside to tell him of her sexual activities. He insists that the stories will feel like they are making love together and keep him alive. Bess’s increasing selflessness leads to a finale of divine grace, but at great cost.