Criterion Discovery: Breaking the Waves

Background: Breaking the Waves (spine #705) is a 1996 drama directed by Lars von Trier. Von Trier’s other films in the Collection include The Element of Crime (spine #80), Europa (spine #454), and Antichrist (spine #542).

Story: Newlywed Bess (Emily Watson) maintains her faith (despite the puritanical and patriarchal church to which she belongs) after her husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) is paralyzed in an oil rig accident.

Breaking the WavesThe Film: Breaking the Waves is over two-and-a-half hours long, but to me it boils down to a single shot: Bess in bed with her brand-new husband Jan on the night after their wedding, grinning and giggling as he snores beside her. Bess’ ability (or at least her attempt) to find ecstasy in roughness drives the entire film, from her initial marriage to Jan to her final tragic sacrifice. Emily Watson’s shy smiles, often directed at the camera, become more heartbreaking as her circumstances become more dire. Von Trier doesn’t condone her actions from a moral or spiritual perspective, but he doesn’t shame her for her naïveté either. He navigates that fine line with skill and class; and it’s no wonder that this was his big breakout film.

Although von Trier’s career today is popularly defined more by the dark unreality of films like Antichrist, Breaking the Waves is a far better glimpse into the forces that motivate him creatively. Yes, it’s quiet sad as a film, but it’s a sadness that comes with a promise of eternal paradise. In an interview reprinted in the booklet packaged with this Criterion release, von Trier describes the film as being critical of religion, but not God. Though his films often dwell on man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man, they all somehow still take place in a universe governed by a strict morality. That morality may not work out in humanity’s favor (as is most clearly illustrated in Melancholia) but the final scene of Breaking the Waves shows that it may have something to offer to the truly good-hearted.

Supplements: Breaking the Waves comes with the typical Criterion bevy of special features, booklet and all, though these are more akin to the ones you might find on a normal home video release. There are cast interviews, trailers, and deleted scenes, and while valuable they’re not the most exciting supplements Criterion has ever assembled. My favorite feature is a 45-minute commentary track over select scenes from the film, with von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle chatting about the production. It’s a lighthearted but informative conversation (a standout moment comes when von Trier asserts that Skarsgard loves being nude on-screen), and the three evenly debate some choices that they disagreed upon. The booklet includes an essay by film critic David Sterritt that examines the film’s themes, and includes a lengthy interview with von Trier that covers nearly every aspect of the film’s production and release. The transfer of the film is fantastic, supporting a handsome layer of grain with very sharp photographic images.

Overall: Breaking the Waves may not go down as the definitive von Trier film, but it’s one of the best encapsulations of the ideas that continue to drive his art.

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Josh Rosenfield
Josh is a cinephile and film critic hailing from Connecticut. They have a BA in Film Media with minors in History and English from the University of Rhode Island. They're a rookie from the wrong side of the tracks, and they don't play by the rules.