Films

Sexual healing

BREAKING THE WAVES Directed by Lars von Trier

Brian D. Johnson December 2 1996
Films

Sexual healing

BREAKING THE WAVES Directed by Lars von Trier

Brian D. Johnson December 2 1996

Sexual healing

Films

BREAKING THE WAVES Directed by Lars von Trier

The European art film, so popular during the 1960s, has all but vanished from the North American screen. There are exceptions— such as 1995’s lavishly marketed II Postino— but on the whole viewers on this side of the Atlantic seem to have lost their ability to chew popcorn and read subtitles at the same time. Some foreign films, however, are becoming more user-friendly. Danish director Lars von Trier has followed up his obliquely surreal masterpiece, Zentropa (1992), with the far more accessible, and subtitle-free, Breaking the Waves, a harrowing drama of obsessive love filmed entirely in English.

Winner of the (second-place) Grand Jury Prize in Cannes last May, it combines the trappings of a European art film with the visceral wallop of an ER episode. The story is set in the 1970s, on a desolate stretch of Scotland’s northwest coast, the sort of austere, bone-chilling landscape that would make characters from an Ingmar Bergman movie feel right at home. Bess (Emily Watson) is a painfully naive virgin who falls in love with a worldly oil-rig worker named Jan (Stellan Skarsgârd). Against the advice of her community, which is ruled by a strict puritan sect, they marry. He goes back to work on the rig, and she prays for his speedy return—which happens all too soon after an accident leaves him paralyzed and braindamaged. From his hospital bed, Jan perversely exploits his wife’s devotion—asking her to prove her love by having sex with other men. And Bess becomes convinced that carnal sacrifice is the key to Jan’s recovery.

Conveying an eerie, childlike delusion, British newcomer Emily Watson is devastating. When Bess prays, she speaks both sides of the dialogue with God, as duelling voices of a split personality. She is a St. Joan of the gender wars, and von Trier tracks her martyrdom with dizzying documentary realism, shooting almost the entire, 160-minute movie in a handheld style. Yet he frames his narrative with surreal chapter-headings— landscape tableaus painted in psychedelic hues and accompanied by ’70s hits from the likes of Elton John, David Bowie and Procul Harum. And he tacks on an ending that is downright wacky. But, then again, an artiste cannot be expected to breach the mainstream without breaking some waves.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON