Breaking the Waves could be said to function as a working prototype of the sick existential joke that director Lars von Trier has since forged an international career perpetrating, but there’s a crucial difference: This film finds the gifted but often didactic director in an active dialogue with his characters and the actors playing them. Von Trier is up for surprises here, and he welcomes contradiction and disruption from his master plan if it allows for recognizably and ineffably human resonance. The gleeful shock tactics of Dogville or Nymphomaniac have surprisingly little effect; you’re numbed and rendered immune early on to the outrageousness because the characters are ciphers at the service of a preordained rant. But in Breaking the Waves, the tiniest gestures ripple with an erotic danger that appears to be emanating from a sense of the potential revelation of true chaos. Love and cruelty are so blurred in this film that you respond to emotion as an undefinable cosmic purity.
The film’s sense of exhilaration, at its heart, derives from a simple but powerfully effective contrast: It’s a faith-based film with an anarchist punk-rock aesthetic. This is a rule-breaking movie that decries the fascist suppression of a conventionally uptight religious system that concludes with the implication that these barbarous rules yielded beauty inadvertently anyway. The film is shot in a 180-degree-rule-annihilating fashion—reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s late work—that stitches together multiple takes within milliseconds of one another with pointedly little attention paid to continuity. Physical consistency is a bourgeoisie dodge to von Trier, yet another rule that exists at the expense of emotional honesty. In later films, this rationale would feel like a dodge itself, an excuse to stitch sequences together haphazardly, but Breaking the Waves makes a hell of a case for this fusion of the found-object element of von Trier’s Dogme movement with an occasionally deceptively tossed-off burst of expressionism that recalls Dreyer and Bergman.
This formality grounds the religious symbolism in an exhilaratingly live-wire illusion of “reality.” Vitally, it also allows us to feel as if we’re privy to all of the character’s thoughts at once. We appear to be glancing at X-rays into their souls, an impression that’s nearly literalized by the cathartic explosions of 1970s rock (the film owns T. Rex’s “Hot Love” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”). The emotions are so overpowering, and von Trier’s staging is so fleet and lightening precise (his customary washed-out images have never again been so convincing or gorgeous), that it may take you awhile to discern that the story is of a modern saint. Saints are often spoken of in hushed, polite, heightened terms that offer moralizing untainted by human stink, but von Trier captures the terrifying wrongness of what existence as an actual visionary would almost certainly entail: Bess (Emily Watson, in a performance of awesome translucent majesty) renders herself an alien on a planet ill-equipped to deal with her, and so the miracle she yields is written off by the classist tastemakers as coincidence.
Von Trier is alive to another irony, and this is where his outraged sense of humor reveals itself: To save her husband Jan’s (Stellan Skarsgård) life, Bess must destroy herself in every sense of the word so as to render a salvation that appears to be meaningless on a grand social scale. Breaking the Waves is so irresolvable and so disturbing because it’s a romantic deconstruction of romanticism; von Trier links intense love to the domineering platitudes of traditional religious trials of faith through their mutual capacity for masochism. The grand gestures that Bess commits exist for their own sake, as her self-inflictions arguably surpass the brutality she’s undergoing them to absolve. Her actions parody what most religious dogma, and romantic love, demands: faith at the expense of logic, because if logic ever enters the equation people may come to realize that they’re being taken for fools. But von Trier isn’t content with that cynicism. Bess yields so much of herself to authority, of all kinds, that the purity of her devotion allows for transcendence. It’s not the validity of Bess’s beliefs that matter, but their existence. Regardless of the hypocrisy and corruption surrounding her, Bess’s selflessness is unshakably real.
Supervised by director Lars von Trier, this Criterion transfer represents a radical improvement over previous home-video presentations of the film, particularly in terms of the visual component. Color ranges are much wider, revealing the intricate delicacy of the cinematography, which often unfortunately resembled a home-movie eyesore on VHS and DVD editions. Clarity is vastly improved, most notably in the backgrounds, and grain and light levels, which are intentionally highly variable, are preserved with greater nuance. The image is highly expressive without ever looking too good. This isn’t a show-off film sonically, but the rich density of quiet, subtle diegetic effects is impressive and key to sustaining the film’s illusion of verisimilitude.
The supplements primarily revolve around one telling bit of information: that von Trier’s techniques for making a film are much more calculated than they appear to be. (Like Mike Leigh, words such as "naturalist" are applied to von Trier when they shouldn’t be.) The selected-scene audio commentary featuring the director, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle takes you through an abbreviated 45-minute version of the movie, and allows the filmmakers to discuss in bracing detail how they assembled it. Von trier favors a mixture of intense preparation and multiple takes with a variety of improvisations, all of which are shot by continually filming cameras and edited together with an emphasis on the "emotion" rather than any specific narrative obligation. The other features essentially compliment this superb commentary, particularly the short new interviews with Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, which provide a portrait of von Trier’s working methods from the actors’ point of view. The interview with filmmaker and critic Stig Björkman provides a succinct analysis of the evolution of von Trier’s formal philosophies. Rounding out this package are extended and deleted scenes, archive interviews, the trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt, and an excerpt from the 1999 book Trier on von Trier.
Lars von Trier’s greatest film, by a wide margin, is revealed by Criterion to be even more beautiful than you may have already known.