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With: Emily Watson, Stellan SkarsgŒrd, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier
Written by: Lars von Trier, Peter Asmussen
Directed by: Lars Von Trier
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some violence
Running Time: 159
Date: 05/18/1996

Breaking the Waves (1996)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Good at This

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not an expert on Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. That honor belongs to my friend, and a great ex-film critic, Rob Blackwelder, who saw the film some dozen times and considers it to be the greatest film he's ever seen. (You can read Rob's original review here.) I've only seen it once, and I don't think I ever need to see it again, but I would concur that it is indeed an outstanding film. It's one of von Trier's best and purest expressions of his disturbed psyche. It's cruel, but also humane; it's depressing, but also spiritually uplifting.

Emily Watson earned an Oscar nomination as Bess McNeill, a simple, troubled Scottish woman. She prays to God and provides God's answers in her own voice. She marries a Norwegian oil rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), but cannot stand to be apart from him when he is away at work. She prays for his immediate return, and Jan is seriously injured in an accident and sent home. Paralyzed and unable to have sex, Jan asks his wife to have sex with other men and to come back and tell him about it. That way it will be as if they are having sex together. Bess reluctantly agrees, eventually coming to believe that this is all God's will.

The description always sounds so disturbed, but when you're watching it the film has the power to pull you into its world, and I think that this is largely due to Watson's open-eyed, open-hearted performance. If she had been tormented in some way, the film would have quickly turned south, but she remains full of love, faith, and hope. (Viewers, however, may wish to rescue her from this strange situation.) It's an unforgettable, powerful experience.

Breaking the Waves is notable for its hand-held cinematography by the great Robby Muller, whose work on the austere black-and-white Dead Man was seen the same year. Nowadays, hand-held camerawork is commonplace, but this was the first time that one could hear tales of viewers being "seasick" while watching. Nonetheless, it was the perfect choice for this particular film.

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