Breaking the Waves is not a new film. Originally released in 1996, it has received substantial critical acclaim and courted significant controversy: cries of misogyny continue to dog Danish director Lars von Trier, as his proclivity to violently punish his female protagonists has demonstrated itself as enduring as it is difficult for audiences to endure. Less punishing, perhaps, than both of von Trier’s more recent offerings, Antichrist and Nymphomaniac I and II, Breaking the Waves might nevertheless appear a strange film to revisit in our current moment. In Toronto, the Jian Ghomeshi trial has just wrapped up. It is but one of many contemporary high profile cases precipitating a heightening of critical and popular discourse around issues of consent, the insidiousness of sexual violence, and institutionally and culturally sanctioned abuses of power. Today’s viewers and readers have become increasingly savvy at recognizing how systemic violence, thinly veiled, is embedded and reproduced in cultural products.
Pervasive misogyny (still) is increasingly being outed. So revisiting a film in which the sexual degradation of its female protagonist both ends in her death, and yields, concurrently, a dubious transcendence might thus appear… politically suspect, in poor taste, or at the very least, untimely. Why endure (still) a narrative in which both poles of the eternal feminine— virgin and whore—are transposed on a single figure who, as a good exemplum of both, suffers as both must?
Simply (and maddeningly): because watching the film both confirms the validity of these critiques and insists on what they miss. The story of a woman who sacrifices her life to save her love, Breaking the Waves (set off from the damning pattern of von Trier’s subsequent productions) does not present as gratuitous, callous, or trite. With minimal fuss (sparse dialogue, even sparser music, a hand-held camera, and a particularly commanding performance by Emily Watson in the lead), the film produces a powerful feeling. It is arresting and nuanced in its depiction of human relationships in a way that a caricature or cliché could not be, and it invites active, difficult witnessing rather than passive viewing.
Photo: ©PUBLIC DOMAIN