Breaking the Waves: Criterion Collection
May 12, 2014
With Breaking the Waves (1996), Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier finally broke through into North America after several early efforts that were exercises in style more than anything else. This film saw him taking a page from the cinema of John Cassavetes by adopting an immediate, lo-fi aesthetic via extensive use of hand-held digital camerawork. Also, for the first time, Von Trier created an intimate story that focused on a complicated relationship between two people in an unconventional way.
Bess McNeill (Watson) marries Jan Nyman (Skarsgard) in a church by a stern pastor in a small village on the northern coast of Scotland. The reception is a joyous affair and the newly married couple are very much in love, but Von Trier offers us a glimpse of the extreme behavior of the town elders when one of them breaks a glass in his hand without even flinching in response to one of Jan’s friends good-naturedly crushing a beer can with his.
Bess is an innocent with a simple outlook on life steeped in religion no doubt as a result of living in a rigidly repressive society her entire life. Jan, on the other hand, is much worldlier. He works on an offshore oil rig and is not from the area, which does not endear him to the village elders. Early on, Von Trier takes the time to show how Bess and Jan’s relationship deepens. They are not only physically intimate, but emotionally and spiritually as well. It is important that Von Trier does this because it gets us emotionally invested in this couple so that the devastating effect of what happens later on has a definite impact.
Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard deliver powerful performances devoid of vanity, which is a pre-requisite of any actor in a Von Trier film. Their chemistry together is crucial in getting us to care about Bess and Jan and stick with them when their story takes a turn for the tragic. Both of their careers were given significant boosts as a result of their work in Breaking the Waves and rightly so.
Breaking the Waves marked the first film in Von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy that also included The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). They all included God-fearing female protagonists whose love and devotion for those they care most in their life is put to the ultimate test. These characters sacrifice themselves in powerful yet heartbreaking ways and Bess is no different. Like with many of his female protagonists, Von Trier both fears and admires her, but by the end of the film we do get some kind of understanding of what she did.
This new Blu-Ray transfer was personally supervised by Von Trier and accurately restores the look of the theatrical release in painstaking detail. This is a very impressive transfer.
There is a trailer for the film.
“Selected-scene commentary” by director Lars von Trier, editor Anders Refn and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle. Refn points out that he and Von Trier agreed to edit the film on emotional beats as opposed to traditional methods. Von Trier points out the CGI on the chapter title cards and talks at length about the camerawork. His mischievous sense of humor is in full effect on this engaging and informative extra.
There is an interview with filmmaker and critic Stig Bjorkman who was on location during the shooting of Breaking the Waves. He offers his impressions of Von Trier and says that the director feels most comfortable and secure making movies. He also hates being in front of the camera. Bjorkman points out that The Kingdom (1994) was a turning point for Von Trier and with Breaking the Waves he was more open to working closer with the actors than ever before.
There is an interview with actress Emily Watson who says that she had very little filmmaking experience when she did Breaking the Waves. She offers her initial impressions of Von Trier. She was intimidated by him and the experience, but was able to get caught up in the moment during filming.
Actor Stellan Skarsgard is also interviewed. He talks about what first drew him to working with Von Trier and Breaking the Waves. He also talks about bringing his character to life and how he approached playing him. Skarsgard speaking highly of Watson and what she brought to her role.
There is also an interview with actor Adrian Rawlins who briefly talks about working on the film and how free he felt as an actor.
“Emily Watson’s Audition” features footage of the actress trying out for the role of Bess with optional audio commentary by Von Trier, Refn and Mantle. The director offers his initial impressions of Watson and how he knew she was perfect for the role.
Also included are two deleted scenes and two extended scenes with optional commentary by Von Trier, Refn and Mantle. The director explains why this footage was cut, mostly because it conveyed too much information.
“In Memory of Katrin Cartlidge” is a deleted scene with the late-great actress as a tribute by Von Trier.
Finally, there is the “Cannes Film Festival Promotional Clip” that was intended to be short preview of Breaking the Waves commissioned by the festival to be shown on opening night. Instead, Von Trier recorded a cheeky introduction without showing any footage of his film.