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Nether Regions 06.29.10: Breaking the Waves

June 29, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.



Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, and Katrin Cartlidge
Directed By: Lars von Trier
Written By: Lars Von Trier and Peter Asmussen
Running Time: 159 minutes
Release Date: November 13, 1996
Missing Since: 2000
Existing Formats: Region 1 DVD and VHS
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Rare

One of the qualities I love about the works of controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier is his nerve. He has built himself up to be that director one either loves or hates. His films commonly cause uproars upon their release at various film festivals. This is a man who has been booed on many occasions, and quite honestly, it seems that he likes it. Whatever your feeling of von Trier is, it is impossible to deny the fact that he is not afraid of anything, cinematically speaking of course. Viewing one of his pictures means I will experience something different. I have tackled his resume completely out of order from his debut The Element of Crime to his most recent effort Anti Christ, and am eager to continue.

Bess visits Jan in the hospital
after his accident.

For the purposes of this column, and my obsession with rare films, I purchase these out of print titles through Amazon used sellers, EBay, and other shady auction sites just to bring the reader the best possible examples. Occasionally, I will find one at my local library, and that was the case with Breaking the Waves (on VHS by the way), the 1996 feature whose cover boasts that it appeared on over 75 top 10 lists for that year. Had I pleasure of watching it back then, it probably would have popped up on mine as well. This is a picture that will shake you to the core. I would even venture to say that it is one of the most powerful films of the 1990’s. It is the first installment of his “Golden Hearts” trilogy, which was followed by The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark. If the current trend holds up (most of von Trier’s works have been Criterioned), this will get the Criterion facelift soon. Let’s cross our fingers!

The story is set in the Scottish Highlands during the 1970’s and begins with Bess (Emily Watson) trying to convince the members of her strict Calvinist church that her plan to marry Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rig worker, is a good idea. To her community, Jan is an outsider, and one of the Ministers asks, “Can you tell me about anything of real value that the outsiders have brought with them?” Bess replies, “Their music.” And so Bess’ life with Jan unfolds. Jan’s job requires him to be away for many days at a time, and after the post-marital bliss, Bess is tortured by his absence. She prays for him to return home sooner, and he does; only he has been paralyzed from an accident on the rig. It leaves him unable to perform sexually, and the constant operations and drugs he deals with affects his mental state. When Bess visits, he urges her to take another sex partner and return to describe the encounter to him. Bess truly believes that she is saving Jan’s life by carrying out his wishes, but she starts sliding into dangerous territory. Her behavior grows increasingly deviant, yet she persists with the hope that Jan will make a full recovery.

Emily Watson lost the Academy Award in 1997 to Frances McDormand for her work in Fargo. Both are great performances and both were deserving of the Oscar. It was just one of those years where you wish more than one could win. Watson supplies us with more than just acting. She has immersed herself into the role deeper than most actors would. If her every line and movement was calculated, it speaks wonders for Waston’s talent because she slides from scene to scene by going seemingly on instinct, as if Bess’ future is only mapped out according to how Watson approaches her daily life. The magnitude of Waston’s greatness is in how the story and her part become more difficult to pull off without stumbling or getting too theatrical or overdramatic. Observing Bess talking to herself as if God is speaking to her is both funny and heart wrenching. Bess grows to rely on these conversations in order to function through Jan’s anguish and bizarre requests. Even when Bess puts on an outfit that causes the viewer to be embarrassed for her, Waston keeps perfectly in stride.

Watson could never have been as poignant without a husband that matched with her seamlessly, and Stellan Skarsgard is just that. On occasion, Skarsgard can be too monotone and zombie-like, but under the tutelage of Lars von Trier, Skarsgard has handed in some of his finest turns (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville). Most people inhabiting this persona would have added some unneeded flourishes when Jan was giving his orders to Bess on taking another partner. Jan is indeed sick and the strain of his hospital stay is causing these outlandish assignments, but Skarsgard maintains the authenticity of the situation. We don’t agree with Jan’s behavior, but we understand it. Any human being enduring what he does would undoubtedly suffer some side-effects. Skarsgard reacts to Bess and how obsessed she is with him just like a husband in love would. Bess is a bit psychotic when she tries to open the helicopter door, but Jan steps out and does his best to ease her pain in a normal manner. It is a wonderfully symbiotic relationship, between the actors and the characters.

One of the three
movie posters.

No member of the cast truly reaches the level that Watson does, but the supporting team is all as competent and credible as the leads, especially Katrin Cartlidge as Dodo McNeill. She is Bess’ sister-in-law, a widow after Bess’ brother passed away. This event brought them closer together despite the fact that Bess was committed for a short time due to not being able to deal with it. Like Watson, Cartlidge shines brighter as the film progresses. Bess’ increasingly peculiar conduct forces her to take actions she might not want to, but which is better for Bess in the long run. Cartlidge maintains an appropriate balance with Dodo when she talks with Bess as if she knows what’s best for her. Sometimes it comes across as valuable advice and other times like a lecture, but the society these women live in cherish lectures and that sense of power over another person. The only other cast member that has a significant portion of time is Adrian Rawling’s superlative depiction of Dr. Richardson.

As he has done often in his career, better than most directors I might add, Lars von Trier divides Breaking the Waves into chapters. There are seven of them, excluding the prologue and epilogue. Each chapter break is met with a still image of a landscape, possibly a bridge or a stream as well. Von Trier also makes the transitions abrupt and jarring, intentionally so. They begin with a classic song (such as Elton John’s “Your Song” or David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”), each one blending immaculately with the background. It’s tough to explain how or what these interludes add, but they enhance the weight of the substance divinely. Each segment speaks for itself, and during those gaps it provides us with the opportunity to sit and briefly reflect on what we have seen, and upon seeing the new chapter title, to imagine what lies on the road ahead.

How one communicates and responds to religion and God is a central theme for Breaking the Waves. For Bess, whether or not she really has a direct line to God is open to interpretation for 99% of the narrative. Is she crazy or a special tool of the Almighty? The director keeps this a mystery, but slowly shifts our perspective to the point where we wonder what is coincidence and what is insanity. Of course the contrast of Bess’ childlike naivety and tenderness with the stern and unswerving policies of the village elders is a focus. Mr. von Trier is drawing our attention to how some folks’ comprehension of religion grows distorted and unnatural. Bess’ parallels with Jesus and his sufferings are integrated in a sophisticated, yet impactful way. Bess is rejected because she is atypical, because her manner of helping her husband is vastly divergent from that of the village. Rather than trying to identify with her, they throw stones and banish her.

The elders do not approve
of Bess’ tight red skirt.

Lars von Trier was one of the founding members of the realist Dogme 95 movement, which had a rigid set of guidelines. The best example of that style is Thomas VInterberg’s The Celebration. The fact that the video edit was recorded back onto 35 mm, resulted in Breaking the Waves’ grainy hand-held look. This cinema verite can be nauseating to some, but nonetheless, Robby Muller’s cinematography is breathtaking and frenzied. It’s not as unique now as it was then, but the film’s power is still present, and von Trier’s decision to use this method transforms the material from a regular movie to an intimate and engrossing journey. This is not a true Dogme 95 effort since von Trier constructed certain locations in a studio, used CGI, and even dubbed music, all of which violates their rules. By embracing some statutes of the Dogme 95 style and compromising with sporadic bending of those same points, Breaking the Waves is almost the best of the both worlds.

Breaking the Waves is about how faith, sacrifice, and unconditional love means different things to different people. It is disconcerting, but not overwrought, and still rests more on the side of von Trier’s accessible offerings. There are two sequences that continue to linger in my head. The first is the glimpse at a funeral for a sinner. I had never seen, nor heard of anything like it before, and it left me stunned. The other is the ending, which I will not spoil, but many writers knocked off a few points from their ratings because of it. I loved it, more for its timing than its importance. That twist would not have worked unless the film ended immediately. Breaking the Waves is unlike any love story I have seen. It is a brave exploration of one individual’s plight for peace, and it will leave you emotionally drained. You must invest yourself to it fully, but the rewards are worth the wait. Years after you last watched it, the struggle of Bess will still be fresh in your mind.

Final Rating = 10.0/10.0


Out of Print
The Heartbreak Kid
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV)
The Stepfather 3
America, America
Salem’s Lot
Latin Lovers
State Fair (1933)
Sleuth (1972)
Johnny Guitar
Children of the Corn 2: The Final Harvest
High Noon Part II: The Return of Will Kane
The Prehysteria! Trilogy
Only Yesterday
Ocean Waves
The Little Norse Prince – Still Out of Print

Now Available
The African Queen
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Available Through Warner Archives
Phantasm II
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – All Versions Available
The Stepfather
The Stepfather 2

Random Thoughts

–I finished reading Woody Allen’s book Without Feathers, which is basically random writings and a couple of short plays. It was very funny and very Woody. It helps if you imagine him it to you. He has 2 other books just like this one. Check them out if you’re a fan!

–I picked up the Eminem CD Recovery, and was a little disappointed. The album is all about gaining acceptance again and seeing the error of his ways, but in pursuing that path he tries too hard. A few tracks showcase that edge he is famous for, but almost all of the songs feature guests that are unlike him. Some of the choruses resemble something the Backstreet Boys would come up with. It’s average I guess, but I think Eminem is tapped out in terms of creative material.

–As for other movies, I finished the Samurai trilogy, which follows the adventures of Musashi Miyamoto. The great Toshiro Mifune stars, and the trilogy has been described as Japan’s Gone with the Wind. This series will provide you with top-notch fight sequences and duels, superb acting from Mifune, and some spectacular scenery. The storyline weakens in the 2nd and 3rd installments though. Overall I was a bit letdown. Thankfully I watched The Triplets of Belleville to pep me up.

–I also got a chance to read Army of Darkness: Ash Saves Obama. This was a 4 issue comic. I love reading just about anything with the Ash character, but this was the silliest and dumbest adventure yet. They literally have a comic version of the Necronomicon. Ash attends a comic convention that Obama is visiting and that’s how the fun starts. Yeah.

–Stay tuned for next week. I’m not sure what I’ll be bringing you yet, but check back anyway.

The Top 10 Pet Peeves of 2009
The Best and Worst Films of 2009
My Blog featuring Mini-Reviews of New Releases!

-Thanks to Jeremy Thomas for my banner.

“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount


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Nether Regions, Chad Webb

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