REVIEW – Breaking the Waves (1996)
FilmJuice have my review of Lars von Trier’s Palme D’Or-winning tragedy Breaking the Waves.
Breaking the Waves tells of a rather innocent young woman from an isolated Scottish religious community who decides to marry a man who is employed on one of the local oil rigs. At first, the couple (played by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgaard) seem perfectly matched as their sex life is nothing short of epic. So profound is the young woman’s passion for her husband that when he has to go back to the oil rig to work, she pines terribly. In fact, she pines so much that she prays for God to return her husband to her side. God appears to answer the young woman’s prayers when a hideous industrial accident paralyses her husband. Unfortunately, because the couple’s relationship is almost exclusively physical, the husband’s inability to have sex with his wife comes to represent a failure of their love and so he encourages her to have sex with other men.
Breaking the Waves is a film about faith. Bess uses her faith in God as a template for her relationship with Jan and because her relationship with God is one of blind, unquestioning and passionate submission, she does not have it in her to deny her heavily-medicated husband when he begins making perverse requests. Bess’s faith in God and Jan is so pronounced that when Jan’s condition deteriorates, she believes that it is because of her lack of faith and so she begins to seek out increasingly violent and degrading men with whom to have sex. The end of the film is gut-wrenching because it proves that Bess was right all along but it also leaves you wondering what kind of God/Husband would demand such blind and self-destructive obedience from those they claim to love?
I very much enjoyed Breaking the Waves and — incredibly rarely for me — I actually teared up at the end of it but my enjoyment of the film in no way diminishes the fact that I regard it as somewhat problematic.
We would all like to believe that art house film provides a viable alternative to the generic and politically dubious output of Hollywood but the truth is that European art film has its own set of well-rehearsed and problematic narratives. Narratives favoured simply by virtue of the fact that most of the people making European art house films come from a particular gender, a particular class and a particular ethnicity. One of the more oppressively ugly stock narratives in art house film involves a beautiful and engaging young woman who winds up getting beaten, humiliated, raped and forced into sex work so that the pathos of her downfall may help the director point an accusing finger at the horrors of the world. Breaking the Waves uses this narrative as does Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Bigas Lunas’ The Ages of Lulu and it also resurfaces (albeit in a more critical and self-aware form) in films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie. How many times do we have to revisit this narrative before people start to realise that it’s rather long in the tooth? How frequently do you see a film in which a man’s descent into sex work mirrors their existential collapse? How many films are there in which a female character sees the horror of the world and responds by becoming a cold-eyed murderer or ruthless business woman? As I say in my review, Breaking the Waves is a brilliantly made and deeply affecting film but the reason it works so well is that there have been literally dozens of films made using the exact same storyline.
Having re-watched Antichrist since watching Breaking the Waves, I am struck by how many of von Trier’s works seem to walk the line between casual prejudice and critical self-analysis. Indeed, many critics of Antichrist accused it of being profoundly misogynistic as the plot revolves around a woman who goes insane after internalising some misogynistic texts she had been studying as part of a PhD. I certainly agree that Antichrist (much like Breaking the Waves) is in dialogue with a western tradition of misogynistic attitudes towards women but both films make it quite clear that misogyny enters the world of the film through the actions of patriarchal men who coerce their wives into acting out misogynistic life scripts (the deranged screeching harpy in Antichrist and the saintly victim in Breaking the Waves).
It is always tempting to invoke authorial intent in order to collapse the wave function and deposit von Trier’s work on one side or another of the fence but what keeps me returning to his work is precisely this ambiguity, his recognition that horrible attitudes lie buried just below the surface and that it is often incredibly difficult to work out whether one is doing the right thing or perpetuating blind privilege and prejudice. I have long been of the opinion that the art house film scene needs a groundswell of popular feminist criticism to challenge the out-dated attitudes and tropes that are blindly reproduced in film after film but I genuinely have no idea what the social justice movement would make of a filmmaker like von Trier.