Breaking The Waves: Until Death Do Us Part

As film technology advances, most filmmakers and studios will opt to use the most advanced filming technology present to have vibrant film images, to avoid technical issues with simpler cameras, and digital (or occasionally physical) sets to immerse the audience in the atmosphere of a film without needing to spend production time and budget on-location shooting. However, director Lars Von Trier, who collaborated with fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg by creating the stringent (but often broken) filming guidelines of the Dogme 95 film movement, still frequently used handheld camera filming in his films to immerse the audience in the realism of the film as an unseen character due to the mobile and unstable nature of shooting without a camera tripod. In Lars Von Trier’s breakthrough film Breaking The Waves (1996), the imperfect filming quality helps immerse the audience in the often tragic story of Bess McNeil (Emily Watson) as she is emotionally devastated over the paralyzing accident that her new husband Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård) has recently gone through. With the use of inexpensive filming cameras, a realistic atmosphere, and a nostalgic soundtrack, Breaking The Waves has proven to be an influential work 25 years later for directors both experienced and new today.

Bess looks on wearing a wedding dress

The use of inexpensive filming equipment is one major aspect of the film that continues to be relevant within the film industry today. During scenes where Jan is shown working on the oil rig, the camera moves around as it follows the character, never able to stay still as the imperfect nature of holding a camera without a tool like a tripod or stabilizer mounts makes it hard to keep stable shots. This use of an inexpensive yet immersive filming manner is influential in the found-footage genre of films like District 9 (2009) or Searching (2018), as they utilize their lower-budget film equipment as a storytelling method where the imperfect camera becomes the audience’s immersion point.

Furthermore, the free-moving nature of a handheld camera helps the audience become immersed in the film as it avoids the artificially stable images that a tripod yields, allowing independent filmmakers to save on production costs by using even a smartphone as a handheld camera in a film like Tangerine (2015).

Another aspect of the Breaking The Waves‘s inexpensive filming equipment is the graininess over all of the film’s images (except for the chapter intertitles). Whereas the film could’ve used a more technically proficient camera and film stock besides 35 mm to achieve a sharper image, the grain of the film strengthens the film immersion even further due to the images resembling a sort of home movie quality that the moving handheld camera provides. And even though the most basic contemporary cellphone cameras have a much higher quality image display than the handheld camera used within the film, figures like Steven Soderbergh used a less-perfect smartphone camera to film all of Unsane (2018) where traditional filming cameras provide a sharper image, just as Lars Von Trier had the option to use a more technical filming camera.

Jan sits against a pillow with a neck brace on his neck

The realistic atmosphere of the entire film is another major aspect that makes it relevant today. As Bess has frequent conversations with God throughout Breaking The Waves, the audience observes a switch in voices from her normal prayer voice to a deeper one when she’s supposedly speaking the replies from God. This ambitious nature towards whether God is replying to her or not is a great characterization method to expose Bess’s tendency towards unending faith and devotion, even though from an observer’s viewpoint she is only talking to herself.

This religious ambiguity is also reflected in contemporary films like First Reformed (2017) where the film also ponders the existence of a godly figure and the effectiveness of faith. Another aspect of the realistic tone of Breaking The Waves is when Bess has various sexual encounters with men after being told by Jan that it will help them connect due to his injury preventing any physical connection between them. The sequences of Bess having sex with other men due to the suggestion from her injured husband brings a great sense of realism as the sex scenes are shot in a non-erotic fashion where Bess is still uncomfortable in performing the act but does it out of faith the act will heal her husband. These various sexual encounters are greatly juxtaposed to the romantic moments that Bess and Jan had at the start of the film, as Bess is happy and deeply affectionate by laying with her husband, while the sexual encounters with the various men after Jan is injured are shown as something of a chore for her to endure. The tragic sadness that Bess expresses throughout the film due to her injured husband also resembles the major theme of grief being present due to an absent loved one in The Babadook (2014).

Bess leans over Jan in his hospital bed

A final aspect of the film that is influential in contemporary films is the use of a nostalgic film soundtrack. As the film is set during 1970s Scotland, the film uses chapter intertitles with various 1970s songs such as Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” or Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. While these songs are great listening experiences on their own, they are greatly utilized in adding to the atmosphere as they’re all from the decade that film takes place in, making them an embodiment of the 1970s like the rest of the film.

The songs utilize some aspect of romance or love, which ties in well to the themes of love and dedication throughout the film. Furthermore, they’re great tone-setters for the scenes that follow, just like all the 1970s songs that were used for an additional emotional impact in American Hustle (2013), another 1970s period piece. Another great utilization of the soundtrack is the use of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” during the epilogue chapter title after Bess’s death. The melancholic nature of the song is a powerful backdrop towards the finale of the film as Bess, who went through great suffering and anguish before her death, is finally laid to rest as the instrumental increases in volume over the intertitle, almost making it a funeral theme, even though the song stops playing after the intertitle ends and the funeral scene begins. The tragic ending of the film mixed with an equally sad theme is also prevalent in films like Filth (2013), which uses Radiohead’s “Creep” as an ending theme tied to a character’s suicide.

A white church sits surrounded by grass and a hill behind it, with bicycles out front

While Lars Von Trier has had multiple influential and well-regarded films in his filmography, Breaking The Waves is a landmark of inexpensive filming techniques, a realistic tone, and a powerfully nostalgic soundtrack. While the film lacks most of the confrontational mannerisms that later films in Trier’s career have such as Antichrist (2009), or The House That Jack Built (2018), it’s an emotionally powerful film that is still effective in its techniques 25 years later. And just as Bess had an everlasting send-off with the ethereal bells in the sky at the end of the film, Breaking The Waves has earned that same celebration.

A shot of a town from the sky with smoke and clouds in the air

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