True art is a journey to somewhere you’ve never been, and there has never been a movie quite like Breaking the Waves. Set in a Scottish seacoast village during the early 1970s, this solemnly rapturous epic, the first English-language picture by the Danish maverick Lars von Trier, might be described as a mystical cinema-vérité fairy tale, a theological daydream of martyrdom and redemption, or the most passionate love story of the year. More than anything, though, Breaking the Waves is an experience, a movie that invites you, with moment-to-moment intimacy, to share the psychic space of its characters, to enter a world in which love, madness, sex, physical paralysis, glitter rock, and the presence of God flow in and out of each other.

At the beginning, we’re made witness to the wedding of Bess (Emily Watson), a shyly beaming young woman who has tested the boundaries of her strict Calvinist community — they’re like the Amish with deeper scowls — by marrying an outsider, a burly, handsome oil-rig worker named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard). The wedding, like the rest of the film, is photographed with a handheld camera, the images bleached yet saturated (an effect cinematographer Robby Muller achieved by shooting on film and transferring the footage to video, then back to film again). It’s as if we were eavesdropping on someone’s home movies. Von Trier doesn’t just simulate reality — he slows down your reaction time, so that the most tossed-off events become vivid dramatic experiences. You practically feel that you’re getting stoned. The trick of the movie is this: Beneath its shaky-cam verisimilitude, Breaking the Waves weaves a tale of spells, portents, miracles. Von Trier’s achievement is to make these things as real, as tangibly present, as the world itself.

Bess, raised in a community of repression, experiences Jan as her first breath of oxygen, and when he has to travel back to the rig, she grows hysterical with loss. This is but one of many cathartic mood swings in Emily Watson’s strange, fearless, bewitching performance. Watson has huge, beatific eyes, the grin of a naughty angel, and a voice that lends the most unassuming comments a tone of lyrical inquiry. Kneeling in church, Bess carries on conversations with God, lowering her voice to speak as a stern, logical inquisitor and then as her imploring, waif-child self, and we’re not sure, at first, what we’re listening to. Is she a psychotically fractured personality, channeling the stern spirit of her elders? If so, the essence of her madness is that it contains — and transcends — sanity. Or is God actually speaking through her? Or is it both at once? When Jan is injured on the rig and paralyzed from the neck down, Bess’ prayers for his return appear to have been answered (though by a horrifically perverse deity). The very power of her faith has caused the accident. No wonder she’ll sacrifice anything, including herself, to save him.

Breaking the Waves is subdivided into eight chapters, each heralded by a psychedelic Day-Glo landscape and a snippet of ’70s rock — a Eurohipster’s version of stained glass and cantatas. It’s a counterpoint to the film’s darkest twist, in which Jan, demented by his paralysis, asks Bess to have sex with other men so that she can maintain their love by feeding his fantasies. She complies, picking up random locals and, with eyes full of tears, sleeping with them, a choir-girl whore in red vinyl. At this point, the film begins to meander — not because it’s gratuitously kinky, but, I think, because it isn’t quite kinky enough. Had Bess experienced a twinge of reluctant pleasure during her erotic descent, von Trier’s flirtation with the subversive would have erupted into a more potent sense of spiritual danger. But this is a minor flaw. In Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson creates the most lived-in portrait of a saint since Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. When Bess climbs aboard a rusty sailor ship that’s a vision of hell on earth, her open-eyed sacrifice is as terrifying — and moving — as anything we’ve seen in movies this year. What’s overwhelming in Breaking the Waves is the feeling it creates that God is connected to Bess, who’s connected to Jan, who is reconnected to life itself. Von Trier has forged a myth of modern romantic faith that could haunt almost anyone into believing. A

Breaking the Waves
  • Movie
  • 159 minutes