Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Adrian Rawlins
Rated R for Strong Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and Some Violence
"Breaking the Waves" is challenging viewing. It demands an investment on a mental and philosophical level that most films do not. That's not to say that it's oblique or particularly difficult to digest. Just that it's different.
Bess McNeill (Watson) is marrying oil rig worker Jan Nyman (Skarsgard). Her simple nature and child-like outlook make it difficult for those in her rigid, deeply religious community to accept her, but she has earned the love of Jan and her dead brother's widow, Dodo (Cartlidge). But when Jan is paralyzed in an accident on the rig, he makes a strange request of her: he wants her to find other lovers and then tell him about it. She doesn't want to because she loves him, but he tells her that it's the only way they can be intimate. Bess agrees.
Thematically, there's a lot going on in this film. Multiple forms of love, faith versus religion, love and intimacy, and so on. Most prevalent is whether Bess is sane or, as she believes, talking directly to God. Sadly, while co-writer/director Lars von Trier brings these up, he has trouble wedding them together in a well-balanced concoction. The film's themes do not feel smoothly presented as they do in the best films. In fact, I'm not sure I would have realized what von Trier wanted to convey about Bess's mental state had I not read James Berardinelli's review.
The performances are terrific. The supporting actors, Stellan Skarsgard, the late Katrin Cartlidge, and Adrian Rawlins, are wonderful. I felt their love and concern for Bess, and they ably handle the complexities of their roles. All three are required to function as friends (or in Skarsgard's case, a spouse) and as parents.
The lead, Emily Watson, is more difficult to describe. Easily one of the most talented English actresses working, Watson certainly set the bar high for her film debut (she was previously a stage actress). Bess is hard to truly sympathize with. At first I thought that she was sometimes over-the-top, but later I realized that she was playing an over-the-top character. The weaknesses in her performance have more to do with the writing than the actress, so in that way, the film may work better upon the second viewing.
Director Lars von Trier is widely respected for his talent (he burst onto the foreign film stage in 1991 for "Europa"), but he is also notorious for his temper and controversial behavior. According to James Berardinelli, he has repeatedly blasted the U.S. for being unfriendly and hostile to foreigners (and has made two movies to that effect) without having visited the country (he is apparently terrified of flying and travelling). Regardless, there's no denying that the man knows what he's doing. He's definitely ambitious, but he's also got the talent to back it up. "Breaking the Waves" may have it's flaws, but it's because it's trying to do something amazing.
I don't usually say this since I believe that most foreign/independent films would work for larger audiences than the studios give them credit for (I blame audience aversion to subtitles and, depending on the film, a lack of a known name), but "Breaking the Waves" isn't for everyone. It's kind of out there, and yet, not. I don't know. Give it a shot and prove me wrong.