Well known for his polarising and provocative films that often utilise strong violence and sexual themes, Danish-born Lars von Trier is a technically gifted filmmaker that has a preoccupation with life’s darker, sadistic side.
Often deliberately contentious, von Trier is not a voice of vapid cinema, constantly pushing the boundaries of cinema with experimental innovation. This innovation however is too regularly combined with overly provocative stories linked to mass murder like in The House that Jack Built or needless sexual perversion like in Nymphomaniac. Whilst his modern masterpieces such as Melancholia and Dogville are often celebrated, it is Breaking the Waves that remains his most powerful and pertinent film.
Set on the harsh coastline of northwest Scotland, von Trier’s film is a carnal love story following the wife of a paralysed oilman, who is encouraged to sleep with other men by her husband despite her strict religious faith. What follows is a powerful exploration of faith and sacrifice where von Trier wrestles his eagerness for provocative filmmaking, to bring a balanced, morally tumultuous love story.
Despite the cinematic spectacle of the beautiful Scottish coastline, it is the performance of the scintillating Emily Watson who lies at the centre of the film’s focus. Her tussle with religion and morality becomes the film’s centrepiece, and her desperate plea for answers in life’s complicated makeup forms a story of great beauty.
Captured by the iconic cinematographer Robby Müller, a man responsible for the aesthetic beauty of Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Müller’s work on von Trier’s religious parable is breathtaking. Framing the harsh coastline of Scotland in spectacular glory, Müller is able to quieten the film with subtle moments of joy between protagonists Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) and Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård).
It’s all captured with a grainy, pasty image as if the long-lost footage of a rediscovered home movie, giving the film a nostalgic, wistful feeling of peculiar regret. Made using Panavision equipment, the low-res quality of the film was actually obtained by transferring the film to video, then back to film again. As von Trier recalled to Criterion, “What we did was take a style and lay it like a filter over the story. It’s like decoding a television signal when you pay to see a film. Here we encoded the film, and the audience has to decode it. The raw, documentary style that I imposed on the film, which actually dissolves and contradicts it, means that we can accept the story as it is”. Such a style would pave the way for his Dogme 95 aesthetic that utilised the very basics of cinema, in video cameras, natural lighting and non-professional actors to recapture the true essence of film.
Described by Martin Scorsese as “a genuinely spiritual movie that asks ‘what is love and what is compassion?” in conversation with Roger Ebert, Breaking the Waves is Lars von Trier’s very best film, facilitating the director’s outbreak into industry fame.
Released in 1996, long before his 21st-century success and even before his early controversial Dogme 95 effort, The Idiots, Breaking the Waves showed Lars von Trier as a director with an incredible eye for some of life’s most intricate tales.