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BREAKING THE WAVES (director/writer: Lars von Trier; cinematographer: Robby Müller; editor: Anders Refn; music: Ray Williams; cast: Emily Watson (Bess McNeill), Stellan Skarsgård (Jan Nyman), Adrian Rawlins (Dr. Richardson), Katrin Cartlidge (Dodo McNeill), Udo Kier (Man on the Trawler), Jonathan Hackett (Priest), Jean-Marc Barr (Terry), Sandra Voe (Mother), Phil McCall (Grandfather); Runtime: 155; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Vibeke Windeløv/Peter Aalbæk Jensen; Artisan Entertainment; 1996-Denmark/Sweden/France/Netherlans/Norway-in English)
“A powerful tear-jerker romantic drama that intriguingly also brings religion into the mix.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Danish writer-director Lars von Trier (“Zentropa”/”The Idiots”/”Epidemic”) films a powerful tear-jerker romantic drama that intriguingly also brings religion into the mix (having its heroine explore the meaning of faith and sacrifice in the face of adversity). The film won the grand jury prize in Cannes. It’s set in the early 1970s in the oil rich remote seacoast in the northwest part of Scotland among members of a close-knit Calvinist community.

Despite opposition from her stern God-fearing religious village, the naive and high-strung Bess (Emily Watson, former Royal Shakespeare Company actress), still recovering from the death of her brother, marries for love roughneck but compassionate outsider Scandinavian North Sea oil-rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgård). After a sexually blissful start to their marriage, Jan has an accident and becomes paralyzed from the neck down and is possibly brain-damaged. Jan, confined to a hospital bed, is distraught that he can’t make his wife sexually happy and proposes that she take lovers and afterwards tell him about the lovemaking, thereby they can share the experience and make a connection through proxy. After much conflict Bess agrees to the plan by deeming it must be God’s design and may be a way of healing her true love, and comes to believe the lovemaking (which includes kinky sex) is a way God speaks to her. Of course, this kind of socially unacceptable love puts her at odds with her pious community. Bess is ostracized by the church as a whore, not accepted in her family, and puts a strain on the friendship with her widowed sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), the only friend she’s ever had. It leads to a most impressive and surprisingly moving miraculous silent finale that leaves you with the painstaking task of coming to your own conclusion about the plot line’s implications and ethical stance.

The performances are truly magnificent and are what give this cynical and contrived film (goes a bit too far in exposing its selfless heroine to indignities) its emotional power and ring of truth. I found it satisfying even though I still thought von Trier’s controversial parable of love and faith pushes its agenda into the reaches of sadism far too much to portray its power of ‘love conquering all’ without being affected by lurid exploitation and without being suspect for not being true to its own far-fetched vision. But, even if that it so, there’s nevertheless a more than adequate presentation of the open-minded individual’s struggle to find spirituality away from the confines of a crippling organized religion to keep things unpredictable and interesting.

In the background soundtrack, the classic rock music ranges from songs by Leonard Cohen to Elton John.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”