Where I was unable to connect to Lucía because of a lack of honesty, Breaking the Waves is a somewhat harrowing and yet compulsive watch because of it. If there is one thing that you can not accuse Lars Von Trier of, it’s that his films lack a rich emotional core which is open to any viewer that wants to peer in. As such, many of his films have the blunt honesty of an open emotional wound; never a bad thing if you are able to do this with exceptional performances and a signature look.
The key to Breaking the Waves lies in the first of those two: the performances or, to be honest, the lead performance by Emily Watson asBess. It’s hard to believe that this was only her second role in a feature film. It has to be up there as one of the best performances that has been put onto celluloid and is, for me, the tied-best performance I have seen in a Von Trier film (the other being Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia).
The central premise of Breaking the Waves sounds absurd when written down. A woman living in a strict Calvinist community marries an oil rig worker. She has some mental and attachment issues (to the extent that she holds conversations with God where she plays both roles) which get worse after her new husband suffers an accident and ends up paralysed. You see, in his attempt to try and help her move on he suggests she takes a lover, but she gets it into her head that every time she sleeps with another man God will help cure her husband.
Things then escalate and spiral in a way that Von Trier does very well, something drowned in irony. You see in Breaking the Waves there is no one who does not act in a way that they would consider good (the only exception being a group of unnamed kids and some sailors). The drama and the heartbreak comes from the way that this goodness collides with one another and, subsequently, ends in tragedy where no one is truly guilty.
I am a fan of Von Trier’s work and have been putting watching this for a while because I knew that I had to be in the completely right emotional mindset to take on a new film of his. It saddens me, therefore, that there are no other films of his on the 1001 list for me to watch. Still, I have a lot of his back catalogue (including The Idiots and Antichrist) still to see, so it’s not as if I am left bereft.