Breaking the Waves (1996) (R)

For Lars von Trier, "Breaking the Waves" sees him at his most pathetically sentimental. For a man who once claimed he understood Hitler, von Trier obviously lives for the shock and awe and I usually find that those films of his are his best. Yet sentimental von Trier is a man who is not so determined on throttling the audience by the neck as much as trying to make the cry for the sake of seeing their tears. He is cruel to character, abusive even; yet they are his and no one else's do with as he pleases. In von Trier's movies, he is God. You should understand this before you head into "Breaking the Waves" but also understand that beneath the stonewall of his preposterous and often too stretching grasp, there is a human heart waiting for you to love. Yeah, that got weird...oh well.
In extreme close-up, we are introduced to Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) who announces to her church that she wants to marry "an outsider" named Jan (Stellan SkarsgÄrd). The elders at the church are not happy with her decision and even find a way to work a little guilty preaching into the wedding, and that was hard enough to arrange.
"Breaking the Waves" is mainly a character study of Bess and how she changes her mind about her faith, and love, and about morals. Lars von Trier fashions a very misogynistic town that Bess has to be contained in, it becomes a prison of sorts. Yet there is this odd dichotomy between the misogyny of the town and the misogyny of Lars von Trier. The town does not allow women to speak in church nor be at funerals (one of which ironically sees cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle sentenced to hell) and so the audience is supposed to react negatively to that. Women should have power, naturally! 
Yes, I agree with this sentiment, but it's hard to digest when it's spoon-fed from von Trier himself, the man who loves nothing more than making an irrational woman. Look at the most sympathetic of his characters in either "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark". What happens to them? 
Then look at "Antichrist" and you get the firm stance of von Trier's—he's confused, frightened, and a bit hateful towards women. But I think he doesn't want to be purposely hateful, he just can't help it.
Once Bess and Jan are married, there is a long montage of sexual awakening and we have to commend both the lead actors for their amazing performances and total determination.
Bess is unstable, we see this when Jan has to go back to work on the oil rig. He is leaving in a helicopter and she freaks out and storms up to the doors, flinging them open and sobbing until he calms her down.
Without Jan at home, Bess unwinds and becomes increasingly emotional and here we see von Trier literally annihilate religion.
There is no God in "Breaking the Waves" because Bess fills both roles, not figuratively. She has conversations with herself and herself as God. She doesn't see this as a look inward, but as an actual communication with some deity. She believes completely in the power of her faith and what prayer can do, though von Trier is always skeptical.
Eventually, unable to keep herself from doing do, Bess prays that God bring Jan home immediately and her prayers seem answer; but it's not what she expected.
The result of her answered prayer send Bess deeper and deeper into an emotional tailspin.
What ensues is an almost three hour long saga of love and heartbreak and struggling.
"Breaking the Waves" is by no means a pleasant movie to watch and von Trier makes keenly sure that we hate and love pretty much everyone in the movie.
As splendid as Emily Watson is, I found that Katrin Cartlidge is even more spectacular as a more level-headed character. It's not as flashy, but I find it truer.
"Breaking the Waves" is von Trier crying, laughing, and pulling the wool over our eyes. It's still spectacular to look at and evocative, but proves again that he is a director who may be too damn odd for his own good.

Score: ★★★

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