I'd never seen a Lars Von Trier film before, but I've always been intrigued by the reviews I've read of his films and the soliloquies to his greatness I've heard from my cineaste friends. He's been considered an important director, even by those who don't always like his films. A friend told me earlier this week that "important director" is code for "no one likes their movies."
I had the chance to put this to the test last night, when I watched 1996's Breaking the Waves for the first time. A movie that makes your heart ache. I loved the movie, but it's certainly bleak in a way where it may not be beloved by everyone.
The movie tells the story of a young woman named Bess (Emily Watson) and the love of her life, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), opening with their wedding in a remote village in Scotland. It's a pure love told in a realistic, moving fashion. Still, the time of joy doesn't last, and at her husband's urging, Bess is sent down a road of debasement that can be hard to watch. She does horrible things, but she does it all for the sake of her love for her husband and her love for God.
Emily Watson as Bess in Breaking the Waves (vcheregati via Flickr)
The closed, conservative religious community depicted in the film which Bess is a part of sets a background tone that lets Bess absolutely leap off the screen. One particularly poignant scene features the members of the church talking about "unconditional love" while failing to practice that tenet when it comes to a member of their own flock.
Despite all the pain in this movie, it's still full of life and joy. That's encapsulated in the musical interludes that divide the film into chapters, featuring beautiful photography and some excellent classic rock, ranging from "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
Emily Watson earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1996, and Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and placed it on his list of the best films of the 1990s. If you like independent films, big ideas, and aren't easily offended, I'd strongly recommend giving this movie a chance.
Lead photo: Neist Point, Isle of Skye, Scotland, where several scenes in Breaking the Waves were shot (ilgiovaneWalter via Flickr)