#297 Breaking The Waves

(1996, Lars von Trier)
“Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to Hell”

Last time we saw Lars Von Trier on this blog, it was the harrowing and unexpectedly excellent Dancer In The Dark, where Bjork sang some songs and endured as life just got worse and worse for her over a period of time. Today’s film, Breaking The Waves, is apparently part of the same trilogy, which means another innocent woman is put through hell due to a cruel, heartless world. So, nice and happy movie then.

Breaking The Waves focuses on Bess McNeil (Emily Watson), a young Scottish woman who lives in a very conservative village society. The movie hints at a history of psychological problems, which include her frequent discussions with God, who she believes responds to her in her own voice. She marries a Norwegian oil worker, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), although following a passionate honeymoon, Jan must leave to go and work on the rig. Later events leave Jan paralysed, causing him to demand that Bess go and take other lovers in his absence. It all goes wrong from there.

The movie begins as standard for Lars Von Trier. Shaky handheld cameras, limited sets and a sense of gritty realism at all times, that kind of thing. Immediately called to mind Dancer In The Dark, which was a good thing. However, whereas the latter spent much of the first part of the movie chucking Bjork songs at you, this movie replaces them with sex scenes. Endless sex scenes. If there’s not a sex scene, it’s building up to a sex scene. Sex. Sex. Sex. All the sex!

I’m not offended by sex scenes in movies because there’s nothing inherently wrong with sex scenes. However, when they happen as frequently as they do in Breaking The Waves, it’s easy to get tired of seeing a Scandinavian man humping a Scotswoman over and over. I get that it’s supposed to show their passion, but more could have been done to show this instead of just constant sex.

I also felt less sympathetic towards Bess than I did towards Bjork’s character. While both women were very childish and not that well-adjusted, Bess just felt annoying. Whereas Bjork’s bad decisions were heavily based on her lack of a real support network to tell her otherwise, Bess’ support network is constantly around her, and she just brushes them off constantly. Then again, there were plenty of times where that support network seemed to tell her to do one thing and then admonish her for following that advice later, so I don’t blame her for being confused.

Of course, this lack of sympathy for Bess in general led to me generally not caring about most of the events of the movie. It didn’t help that Breaking The Waves was determined to stretch the tragedy of the situation to breaking point, to the point where I just got bored of watching Bess mope around, or found her attempts to sleep with other men tiresome. Nothing was ever learned from any of this, and it gets dragged out forever and made me wish the story would just get on with it.

Of course, it all comes to nothing. The ultimate conclusion of everything that happened makes the whole experience feel utterly pointless. There were hints to more here, with an expectation that their relationship would put some excitement into the stuffy village, or that there’d be a lesson about morality. But no, there was nothing. Just despair and a really stupid “love conquers all” message that makes no sense. Great.

There are things to praise about Breaking The Waves, but they’re minor things. The acting was uniformly good, and production values are very high, but these things mean nothing when everything holding it all together is so unimportant.

I expected another drama that would stick with me like Dancer In The Dark did, but instead I got a plodding mess with an unlikeable protagonist and confusing moral messages. Not worth the time.

Starring Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr & Udo Kier
Written by Lars Von Trier & Peter Asmussen
Produced by Peter Aalbæk Jensen & Vibeke Windeløv
Cinematography by Robby Muller
Edited by Anders Refn

Favourite Scene: Bess’ encounter on a boat with an apparent gangster type was uncomfortable in all the right ways, although it didn’t really have a sensible effect on her.
Scene That Bugged Me: The stuff about the bells. Really?

Watch it if: You like endless despair
Avoid it if: You’d rather see Bjork in the role

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Posted on August 7, 2014, in 1990s, Denmark, Drama, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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