After starting his career with a series of highly stylized films, Lars von Trier made Breaking the Waves, his first after co-founding the Dogma 95 movement, which preached absolute austerity: only location and handheld shooting, only contemporary settings, no non-diegetic sound or optical manipulation, no superficial action, no credit for the director, etc. Typically, he had trouble even playing by his own rules, and von Trier’s break-through film arrived without Dogma 95-certification, largely because of the hyper-stylized, digitally-colored chapter titles accompanied by non-diegetic pop songs by the likes of Jethro Tull, David Bowie, and Elton John to establish the seventies time period.
Breaking the Waves may have failed to live up to the strictures of Dogma 95, but it was most successful in kicking off two decades of controversy courting with his riskiest storyline yet. Bess, a religiously sheltered woman, fulfills her paralyzed husband’s wish for her to seek sex outside their marriage, but she does so in increasingly dangerous and degrading ways. What a lot of critics miss about Breaking the Waves—and similarly provocative films such as Dogville and Antichrist—is that the patriarchy is always von Trier’s real villain. He often conveys this complexly by showing how oppressive institutions twist the thinking of the women they wish to oppress. In Breaking the Waves that institution is a misogynistic religious order and the surrounding community. Its victim is Bess, who believes the only way to do her “duty” to her husband is by suffering, and that suffering is neither glamorized nor fetishized. The hero of Breaking the Waves is Emily Watson in a career-making role that demanded a hell of a lot from her and found her giving so much more than that. She makes the seemingly simple Bess into a lovable, loving, intensely passionate, and ultimately rebellious woman, shredding a recent claim that von Trier is obsessed with “emotionally empty women” in a denunciation of his new film Nymphomaniac on Jezebel.com. I have yet to see that film, but having seen all of his others, I can say that it applies to no von Trier character I’ve ever seen. I’m more on board with actor Stellan Skarsgård, who says von Trier creates some of the best roles for women in an interview on Criterion’s new blu-ray/DVD combo edition of Breaking the Waves.
As much as I love Breaking the Waves, I was a bit skeptical about its appearance in hi-definition. Aside from those gorgeous chapter-title sequences and the brief, fantastical, transcendent digital-image that ends the film, it is a grainy movie shot with shaky hand-held camera. Criterion’s 4k digital restoration does not transform Breaking the Waves into 2001: A Space Odyssey or anything (that would violate the aesthetic von Trier intended), but it does sharpen the film considerably, rendering Artisan’s blurry DVD from 2000 unwatchable. The film looks darker with more natural tones than the washed-out blues that made the actors look like the walking dead on the Artisan DVD. The restoration made me feel like I’d never really seen Breaking the Waves before. So did the reintroduction of shots censored from the Artisan disc, as well as one change that actually altered the film for the worse in my opinion. In its theatrical run, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” played over the final chapter title. Because of rights issues, it was replaced with Elton John’s “Your Song” on the Artisan DVD. Criterion restores the Bowie song to the film. I won’t deny that “Life on Mars?” is a much better song than “Your Song”, but I always found that the naked, corny emotion of John’s song complimented the melodramatic ending of Breaking the Waves with an almost unbearable emotional intensity, so I do miss it.
I have no complaints about the other aspects of Criterion’s new edition. It is stuffed with about 1 hour and 45 minutes of bonus material, including an ingenious selective audio commentary that boils the comments down to the most interesting ones over a 47-minute summary edit of the main feature. So we are spared having to listen to a lot of “umming” and “ahhing” over scenes about which the commentators have nothing much to say. There is also a riveting new interview with Emily Watson in which she discusses her very personal and quite astonishing connection to the character she played. A selection of deleted and extended scenes, one of which makes Bess’s husband’s righteous intentions too explicit, reveals how Breaking the Waves could have been a lesser film with their inclusion. A smattering of other goodies, some of which are a lot more light-hearted than the heavy feature, make this a surprising and satisfying release.
Get the new Criterion edition of Breaking the Waves on Amazon.com here: