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It's impossible to know when you are watching film like "Breaking the Waves" that you are witnessing the high watermark of a filmmaker's career.
Made shortly after Lars von Trier (he added the "von" himself) co-authored with Thomas Vinterberg the strident "Dogme 95 Manifesto" for low-budget filmmaking, "Breaking the Waves" comes with a clarity of vision and social urgency that is an assault on the senses and the intellect. Von Trier leaves no stone unturned.
In her breakout performance Emily Watson plays Bess McNeill, a simple-minded Scottish, Calvinist churchgoer who marries Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgard), and oil rig worker who suffers a terrible accident that leaves him paralyzed. Bess McNeill's worldview is hampered by the religious indoctrination she has gone through.
Intimate conversations with God, in which Bess takes on both roles, provide insight into her sincere but ill-conceived thought process. Nonetheless, the love that Jan and Bess share is real as her imagination brings her to God.
When Jan urges Bess to go out and have sex with other men and report back to him her carnal experiences, she takes Jan's wishes beyond the realm of common sense. In her mind Bess is helping cure Jan from his dire circumstance.
Cinematographer Robby Muller’s documentary shooting style favors intimate close-ups to reveal characters’ inner emotional lives. Muller captures Scotland’s rugged atmosphere as a supporting character to the Shakespearian tragedy on hand.
Although fiercely criticized for its shaky handheld camerawork, the technique gives the film an ungrounded sensibility of floating on roiling waves. Naturally, film and television industries coopted von Trier’s technique so much so that it doesn’t stand out at all.
The film's seven-acts are marked by colorful postcard chapter headings accompanied by songs such as Mott The Hopple's "All the Way From Memphis" for Chapter One — Bess Gets Married or Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to announce Chapter Six.
Lars von Trier makes a clever attack on organized religion that resonates with Bunuel's famous line, "I'm an atheist, thank God." Emily Watson gives an angelic if earth-shattering performance that is transgressive, cathartic, and viscerally painful. Here is a film that makes you feel like you've read the novel, seen the movie, and lived the life of a protagonist more empathetic than any other. You just might need a stiff drink afterward but you will have witnessed one of the best films of all time.