Keeping the aith
A strict religious community in the north of Scotland provides the setting for Danish director Lars von Trier’s astonishing ﬁlm Breaking The Waves. Actors Emily Watson and Jean-Marc Barr share a vision of passion with Alan Morrison.
In the past, when a ﬁlm brought together sex and religion, the best you could expect would be dodgy romps with lesbian nuns. Breaking The Waves combines the same two central themes, but it couldn't be further along the cinema spectrum. One of the most heart-breaking, yet ultimately uplifting ﬁlms of recent years, it’s a masterpiece from Danish director Lars von Trier.
The story centres on Bess. a young Scotswoman who falls in love with a Scandinavian oil rig worker, much to the displeasure of her strictly Calvinist community. where any display of strong emotion is frowned upon and feared as it disturbs the control the Elders exercise over their ﬂock. Bess’s slight simple- mindedness has already made her something of an oddity, but her child-like innocence and overﬂowing potential for love win over the world-weary Jan, and the couple are radiantly happy until Jan has to return to his rig. When an accident paralyses her husband, Bess makes a pact with God, trading Jan’s recovery for her own sacriﬁce and ostracisation from the church.
Much of the ﬁlm's success comes down to a
t Jean-Marc Barr
startling performance by newcomer Emily Watson, a London-born actress whose mastery of Bess’s Scottish accent and insular naivety is perfect. An English Literature graduate of Bristol University who went on to study at the Drama Studio in London, Watson reckons experience on the stage rather than in front of the camera actually helped her create the openness of the character.
‘It was like jumping off a very high cliff. closing my eyes and praying that there would be water underneath,‘ she says of facing up to her ﬁrst ﬁlm role. ‘Most pans. you build layers of complications and subtlety and limitations; playing Bess, it was like peeling away those layers and opening up as much as possible. There’s something about the spirit of this ﬁlm which elevates you beyond your expectations. There‘s something about it which seems greater than the sum of its parts, and I don‘t quite know where that comes from. Maybe it’s because of a very pure intention on Lars's part.‘
Von Trier‘s emotional investment in the ﬁlm is absolute - so much so that. ﬁve days after editing was completed. he was too drained to travel to its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Best known for austere arthouse works and the horror-soap The Kingdom. the director wasn’t on hand to explain his intentions. but actor and frequent collaborator Jean- Marc Barr makes a good spokesman.
‘People reproached Lars on Europa and The Element 0] Crime for being very distant with his emotions.’ explains Barr. ‘Well. he took the challenge to heart and went completely l80 degrees, and showed there’s an innocence in everybody which is a bit retarded. but which is the essence of love. He was defending himself through his technique before and now he’s shown something that is very embarrassing to him.‘
'Embarrassing’ probably isn’t the right word; it’s more a sense of exposed vulnerability that places the ﬁlm on a very personal level about which the director is understandably sensitive. Barr. more than any other actor. knows the workings of von Trier‘s mind. The two of them have embarked on a long term project called Dimension, shooting for three days each year using the interest from $2 million put in a bank account by the Danish and French governments; the
Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves: ‘startllng periormance’
ﬁlm is due for release in 2025, with Barr’s character ageing naturally without make-up.
Barr has made such bizarre choices his own ever since his starting role in Luc Besson's The Big Blue. Born in Germany to a French mother and American father, he studied drama in London, married a Yugoslav and recently made ﬁlms in Italy and Spain: ask him his nationality and he’ll describe himselfas ‘Euro trash’. He didn’t mind, therefore. taking on the relatively small part of Terry, Jan's fellow worker on the rigs, when von Trier gave him the call.
‘l’d just got back from California visiting my father and Lars said . . . what are they called? . . . yeah,
‘There’s something about the spirit oi this film which elevates you beyond your expectations. There’s something about it which seems greater than the
sum of its parts.’
buggerhandles: “Grow some buggerhandles“.’ Over here we‘d refer to them as ‘sideburns’, but Barr’s choice of term is certainly more interesting. ‘I asked him what he wanted me to do with the part and he said “Do what you want". So I thought about the title: Breaking The Waves. I wasn't going to speak in a Scottish accent because that would be ridiculous, so I played a surfer from California.’ ,
An international cast and l970s setting is appropriate, as it was at this time that religious communities were having to open themselves up to the influence of outsiders due to the oil boom. Von Trier used locations in Tain, Mallaig. Montrose and on Skye, as well as doing interiors in Copenhagen. In fact. the story originally took place in a Danish ﬁshing village dominated by the puritan ‘lnner Mission‘ church, and its shift in geography underlines the universality at its core. The location may be speciﬁc, but in the end it's the ﬁlm's emotional impact that matters. Breaking The Waves transcends personal religious beliefs to argue that, even in the most trying of conditions, essential goodness can be triumphant. ' Breaking The Waves opens at the Glasgow Film Theatre and Cameo. Edinburgh. on Fri 18 Oct.
The List l8-3l Oct 1996 21