Breaking the Waves

Look closely at the actress in the photo below. Her name is Emily Watson. She is 29, British and a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is her first movie, and her knockout performance heralds one of the most extraordinary film debuts in ages.

Watson plays Bess, a virginal lass living in a remote village in Scotland during the 1970s. Bess shocks her strict Calvinist community — its church doesn't even feature the vanity of bells — by marrying a lusty Scandinavian oil rigger, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), who suffers a paralyzing accident that leads Bess to have degrading sex with strangers. The film, from Danish writer and director Lars von Trier (Zentropa, The Xingdom), needs some explaining. Watson's luminous portrayal goes straight to the heart.

Breaking the Waves won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, but you can't watch it without hearing some member of the audience hoot at von Trier's mad mix of spirituality and perversion. "The strength of my films is that they are easy to mock," says von Trier, who dares us to leap over the usual boundaries. He makes that leap with his rigorous passion, the raw beauty of Robby Mneller's cinematography (a hand-held camera is used to sensational effect) and Watson's unique radiance.

ess' introduction to sex by Jan, forcefully played by Skarsgard, has an uncommon carnal intimacy. She rubs his belly, brushes her fingers through his pubic hair and plays with his penis as if she's just discovered fucking, which, of course, she has. Her mother (Sandra Voe) and friend (the excellent Katrin Cartlidge) put her fixation down to simple-mindedness. But sex has liberated Bess. Her happiness with Jan is uncontained. In her talks with God — she does his voice in a deep register — Bess is afraid that she will be punished for loving too much.

an's accident reinforces that belief. He asks her to help him get off by having sex with other men and telling him the details. Horrified, she obeys, thinking that her devotion will cure him. When an attempt to seduce Jan's handsome doctor (Adrian Rawlins) fails, she jerks off an old man on a bus and takes up hooking in hot pants on a trawler that is run by a sadist (Udo Kier). Von Trier sets up Bess for tragedy and his movie for a miracle. Whether or not you buy the bell-ringing finale, you won't be unmoved. "Waves" is a spellbinder.

From The Archives Issue 378: September 16, 1982
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