Somewhere between a fable and a fairytale, this haunting melodrama lyrically dips into both your worst nightmare and your most sublime experience in a passionate tale where sexual love and religious fervor engage in a battle to the finish. Set in an isolated, coastal Scottish village in the 1970′s, this is the story of shy and sheltered Bess’s (Emily Watson) transformation by love. Repressed by her family and Calvinist upbringing, after marrying Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an outsider to her community, she literally blossoms into a surprisingly passionate wife, falling in love with quasi-religious intensity.
Unable to live without Jan once he returns to the oil rig, she prays fervently to God for his return. Proving that you need to be careful for what you pray, Jan indeed returns, but paralyzed from the neck down. Hysterical with guilt, Bess is convinced this is her fault, and resolves to do anything to save Jan’s life, even if it means destroying her own. The melodrama concludes, the nightmare begins.
Knowing that sex is no longer possible for the two of them, in a strange twist to this already strange story, Jan asks her to take a lover as a means of rekindling what they shared, in a Job-like test of her love. So pure and unconditional is her love that she agrees, firm in her belief that her sacrifice will heal Jan.
Under guise of a love story, this is really a film about faith. As she sets out for her hell on Earth, we too take that leap of faith, following down her path of martyrdom. This is not a whore, this is a saint. The bells in heaven confirm it, like the rays of sunlight that confirm Elizabeth Proctor’s (Joan Allen) goodness in another recent film about faith, The Crucible, where the good die for their faith, a theme rare in modern movies.
Really more akin to the 1928 film by another Dane, Carl Dreyer, where a young woman also battles a lot of scowling church elders, both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Breaking the Waves owe their success in treating such difficult subject matter to the illuminating performances of their main actresses.
Like Falconnetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Watson’s raw innocence, fervor and absolute belief in her character, have us on the edge, while her face radiates the whole range of emotions that only silent era characters displayed. Her soul is laid bare – reflected in her eyes, her quivering lips, her fearless trust, her innocence and the purity of her belief. This is genuine emotion, real passion. If cinema is emotion 24fps, Watson embodies this as she embodies Bess and makes her credible in this magical story that defies reality. She is the reason I take my leap of faith into believing this absolutely unbelievable story.
Realizing his risky venture in concocting a brew of sexual love, religious faith, martyrdom, insanity, lurid sex acts, true love and 70′s rock music; von Trier uses cinema verite style camerawork to enhance the intimacy and thus your involvement with the razor edged emotion he literally shoves against the lens, in a non-stop emotional roller coaster that is gratefully punctuated by eight musical landscape interludes. Used as chapter divisions, one needs them for emotional relief. Set to 70′s rock music, with psychedelic colors that look like they’re hand-painted but are actually digitally enhanced, these are landscapes like you’ve never seen – still at the same time that they move, surreal at the same time that they are real, they serve as a metaphor for the whole story.
The cinema verite footage pulls you in like a home movie, jumpcuts and all, concretizing and reinforcing the verisimilitude of this unbelievable tale, so that you too, believe as Bess does. With scenes that range from the sublime to the horrific, this film leaves you shaken, haunted and questioning at how von Trier pulled off such an unlikely modern fantasy. This is the real miracle in this film.
Although Breaking the Waves is bound to be criticized for, in von Trier’s words, “treading on the verge of kitsch”, falling off into the land of too much, it is his use of humor within this most unconventional melodrama that saves it. Even if days later, you question the credibility of the events in this narrative; if you’re a woman, you’ll remember Bess’s reaction to the first time Jan snores, if you’ve ever been in love, you’ll remember the scene at the movies when Jan expresses all of his without using a single word, you’ll remember the affectionate intimacy of the shower scene, as well as the strength of the supporting characters, especially the sister-in-law. If you still don’t believe in miracles by the end of this film, then you haven’t experienced as Jan has, that “love is a mighty power”.