Lars Von Trier had an atheist upbringing. But, in his adult life, he found God. It may surprise people to learn this – given the general acceptance of him as a nihilistic cynic. But, of his own accord, after his second marriage, he was baptized Catholic and continues to practice that religion today.
That’s an important fact to take into account while viewing Breaking the Waves, which is absolutely a passion play in the most strict, traditional sense of the word. There is not a hint of cynicism here and Von Trier expects you to take every single aspect of the story at face value; accepting it as reality. It is a deeply spiritual film, aimed at shattering even the coldest secular hearts.
It begins and ends with Bess, and actress Emily Watson’s astonishing portrayal of this character, so let’s start there. Bess is a naive young woman, living on the Scottish isle of Skye. A deeply devout Calvinist, who nonetheless enters into a marriage with the rugged Scandinavian Jan (Stellan Skarsgard, who would become a valued Von Trier “player”) much against the objections of her church. The story concerns the tragic circumstances that eventually arise from this marriage, and how they impact Bess, both personally and spiritually, as well as the greater ramifications in her community.
It is basically a traditional melodrama in the Douglas Sirk (or, to be more culturally accurate, Ingmar Bergman) mold; albeit given a thrust of magic realism, wherein Von Trier uses this standard framework to explore issues of faith and love; as well as the inherent relationship between the two for people who guide their lives through spiritual principles.
Bess’ faith is established early on. Although the first scene in the film shows her defiant before the ministers of her church, who chastise her for choosing to marry Jan, her actual belief in God is never in question. It is here that Von Trier first challenges the viewer. Early on, we witness one of Bess’ several conversations with God. They always take the same shape – that of Bess actually talking to herself out loud and adopting two specific voices and attitudes. Childlike innocence and bemusement for herself, and a stern, paternalistic, clearly masculine tone for “God.”
Given the nature of this story, one wonders how we are meant to interpret these scenes. Is Bess insane? There is talk of her having been “institutionalized” for a time and the suggestion that she was (and may very well continue to be) mentally unstable. Or, are the conversations “real;” that is to say, is she actually speaking with God?
What makes the film fascinating is how Von Trier, ever the canny storyteller, never comes clean one way or the other. Both interpretations are possible and even equally valid depending on whatever your personal connection to the story may be. If you are a spiritually devout person, you will accept things at face value – making the film an almost transcendental religious experience. Whereas, if you are an atheist, only a clear psychologically “logical” interpretation is possible – resulting in a deeply tragic love story about two disturbed human beings. Even when clearly showcasing a mystical event, as he does in the final scene, Von Trier never abandons the naturalistic reality of his staging. He wants the audience to experience the story on their own individual, human terms.
So let’s take a moment to discuss that story in more detail. The actual plot of the film concerns what happens after the marriage. At first, the young couple gives in to the ecstasy of marital bliss, as we see them building a warm and comfortable home life. But then, Jan must go away to his job at an oil rig in the middle of the ocean and Bess is devastated. She prays for Jan to simply return home, and God apparently answers her prayers. Though, much like in “The Monkey’s Paw,” her wish is granted with a heavy price…as Jan suffers an accident on the job and is paralyzed from the neck down.
That narrative through line, in and of itself, would be enough for a traditional melodrama. But Von Trier doesn’t stop there, because what comes as a result of these events is far more psychologically complex and interesting; and it is much more compelling to explore a person’s faith when observing how they deal with God’s perceived “tests.” Going on the circumstances of this particular narrative, it would seem Von Trier is most interested in how the faithful cope with suffering.
The rest of the tale is an extraordinary parable about love and martyrdom, in which Bess embarks on an excruciating personal odyssey for her husband. Jan asks her to take a lover (or preferably several), make love and then come to his bedside to tell him about the experience; as he is no longer able to enjoy his wife’s carnal affection, he claims this will allow him to live vicariously. Her devoutly spiritual point of view leads her to accept this “mission” because she believes this sacrifice may ultimately save her husband and allow him to walk again.
Von Trier derived his concept for the “Golden Heart” trilogy from a Scandinavian children’s story with that name, in which a young girl wanders through the forest giving away all her possessions (even her clothes) to every unfortunate person she comes across. At the end, she emerges from the forest stark naked and the final line of the story is: “But at least I am fine.”
Von Trier’s parents, both atheists, reportedly hated this story, as they felt it espoused the very naive sacrificial Christian ideals they had spent their lives railing against. Von Trier always felt a sympathy for the heroine in the story and was moved by the idea of sacrifice and pure goodness. It could be said, then, that choosing to now expand upon those ideas in a complex series of films stood as the ultimate rebellion against his parents. That, coupled with his converting to Catholicism, results in a total denouncement of his entire upbringing.
While all three films in the trilogy deal with themes of sacrifice and martyrdom, it is Breaking the Waves that seems to most closely mirror the original children’s story. Part of that lies in Emily Watson’s childlike heroine, but also in the novelistic style in which the story is told. This is the first of Von Trier’s films to have chapter titles, each one framed within a vivid storybook-like shot of a landscape. Consider also the evocative early 1970s period setting, complemented by the choice of peppering the soundtrack with choice pop classics by the likes of Elton John and David Bowie. At every step of the way, Von Trier wants to remind his audience that this is a tale.
The difference is that, in this version, the biblical parallels of martyrdom are more sharply drawn, rather than existing purely as an allegory. Because Bess’ sacrifice is so directly linked to her spiritual beliefs, it is inescapable to make a link with Von Trier’s religion. Having now awakened to the Christ parallels of the story that fascinated him as a boy; and maybe only now truly understanding its meaning – and how that level of sacrifice seems to go hand in hand with the reckless pangs of passionate love.
There is something else to consider that few have pointed out. While it’s true that the story’s chief emotional focus is on Bess, that should not discount Jan; who also embarks on a painful journey of discovery, even as it is clouded by his delusion and near madness when struck by his ailment. It bears mentioning that it gives Jan no real pleasure to ask what he does of Bess. It pains him to think of his wife in the arms of another, more so considering the debased way in which she will go about this. The intriguing aspect of this dynamic is that he feels he is doing this for her. He understands how he will never walk again. He will not be able to offer his wife any sort of sexual comfort ever again. By asking this of her, he is giving her permission to be unfaithful, freeing her to satisfy any lustful desire she may have. Interpreted that way, both characters are actually martyrs. They are making painful sacrifices for each other, even as they don’t realize it.
It is that fascination with religious passion, combined with a keen understanding of the very basic, visceral and purely carnal emotions that govern all relationships, that invests this story with a great deal of palpable humanity.
Von Trier has complete control of the medium here; and he wants to move the audience, making them sympathize and connect with the heroine much like he did as a child with the young girl in the story. He accomplishes this by using standard cinematic storytelling techniques. If Breaking the Waves stands as Von Trier’s most accessible film to date it is because of this. He set out very consciously to make a tearjerker. As he put it, he wanted to “make women cry.” And so the narrative is very calculated to achieve that kind of manipulative effect from the start. Having already cut his teeth on commercial filmmaking, as the creative force behind the highly acclaimed and popular television series The Kingdom, he now tried to apply some of those sensibilities to this film. Even though there is an oddness to the story, and even touches of unpleasantness, it is a film geared toward reaching a wide audience; who can embrace and appreciate it on a visceral and populist level. In some ways, the entire trilogy reflects this, as we will see in the following films.
In the previous installment, I claimed Von Trier had “said all he wanted to say about filmmaking” with his Europe Trilogy. I now see that statement could be misinterpreted. I didn’t mean that he had no more desire to continue experimenting with form and content, I simply meant it was his “master’s thesis” on the craft of filmmaking in general. It was a trilogy composed entirely of didactic films. But Von Trier would of course continue experimenting with the art of filmmaking, using everything he had learned from his first films and expanding upon those concepts.
It was in 1995 that he, together with his colleague, filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, drew up and signed the Dogme Manifesto. We will examine the particulars thereof with his next film – The Idiots – but, in general terms, this spoke towards a new, “natural” way of approaching filmmaking. Aiming for a purity of form and content, free of artifice.
Breaking the Waves is far too ornate, and has far too much “going on” stylistically and contextually for it to really be considered a “Dogme” film, but Von Trier did plant the seeds here by employing a gritty, naturalistic esthetic. The film is beautifully photographed by Robby Müller, but if you look beyond the stunning widescreen compositions, you will see a rawness that flies in the face of the narrative’s romantic ideals. The film was shot in 35mm film, then transferred to video, then blown up from the video source back to 35mm. This process achieves a rather unique sense of realism for the images. It is not quite cinema verite, but by stripping down the “beauty” of the film, he achieves a purity that allows the narrative to exist entirely on human terms.
Hence, this is Von Trier’s ultimate awakening as a humanist filmmaker. Because it is from this point on that his films begin to take an exploratory point of view. They become very character-driven narratives, fully invested with psychological depth, where Von Trier can explore all manner of human emotion. Curiously, all the protagonists in his films from this point on are women. This is a facet that will bear analyzing in detail on a case by case basis, but for now it is something worth noting.
Which brings us back to Von Trier himself. What are the artist’s feelings on matters of love and faith? His point of view is ultimately not as ambiguous as it may seem. I’ve already stated how he portrays everything with a naturalistic prism. That’s because he intends the viewer to take everything at face value as an absolute truth.
The story ultimately does engage in the presentation of miracles. The honesty with which Von Trier approaches this aspect is very intriguing. Early on in the story, Jan witnesses a Calvinist funeral, in which a man named Anthony Dod Mantle is buried on a hillside. The particulars here are that this man was a sinner. The priest presiding over the ritual says as much, with the added dictum of condemning his soul to hell. It is an extremely unusual scene, shocking for both the audience and Jan as their surrogate. Its purpose is to establish just how strict the world view is for this particular church; foreshadowing what is to come once Bess’ sexual indiscretions become known to the community; and she is shunned as a sinner by this church. Having Jan witness this at the beginning is chiefly important in understanding the film’s final message – in which Von Trier actually decides to canonize Bess.
The film’s final moments, as Jan defies the church that would condemn Bess and takes her away on his own terms, where actual brass bells erupt from the heavens glorifying her as a saint… This is the sort of element that in a purely old fashioned religious film, could even be seen as risible and ridiculous. But it is because Von Trier has already grounded the proceedings with such palpable reality, that we can do nothing more than simply accept this…and celebrate in the glory right along with the characters.
It’s a bold, risky move. To take his heroes on a journey toward an authentically religious experience; and then mean to transfer all those powerful emotions directly to his audience. There is no doubt Von Trier believes all of this, and in order for the story to work, we must too.