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Breaking the Waves

Director: Lars Von Trier

Denmark-Netherlands-France-Italy-Sweden-U.S.A.-Iceland-Finland-Germany| 1996. Filmed in English. Colour. Anamorphic. Dolby digital stereo. 159 minutes.


The two unlikely sources of inspiration for von Trier’s most acclaimed film were Justine by the Marquis de Sade and Golden Hearted, an obscure children’s picture book the director remembered from his youth. Traces of each book remain in Breaking the Waves and may help explain the film’s divided, seemingly contradictory impulses. What started out as ‘an erotic melodrama’ finally developed into ‘a religious melodrama with erotic overtones’. Set on the north-west coast of Scotland during the early ’70s, the film’s heroine, Bess (Emily Watson), is a sweet, virginal and possibly simple-minded na•f who falls in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an outsider who works on an offshore oil rig. Despite the disapproval of the local religious zealots, the couple are married. When Jan is paralysed in an accident, he asks the devoted Bess to take a lover or two and recount her adventures to him. In addition to this attention-grabbing sexual element, the film introduces an equally strong religious theme through Bess’ special relationship with God. Crucially though, von Trier remains ambiguous about issues such as Jan’s motivation and whether or not Bess’ communications with the Almighty are genuine or figments of her imagination. He compensates for this deliberate lack of clarity by applying a dynamic, hyper-realistic style to the visuals and the performances. The results make for the most intense cinematic experience the supposedly cynical von Trier has so far produced.-

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