There are not as many directors as polarizing popularly yet as talented as Lars von Trier. While it feels like at times his films have perhaps catered a little too hard to the gimmick (looking specifically at Dogville and Manderlay), when he is ‘on' there are few unlike him. In the mainstream announcement of his presence, we have perhaps the best example of it in Breaking The Waves.
Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, Bess (Emily Watson, War Horse) is a religious woman but almost as importantly, she is in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgard, Thor), who works on an oil rig and is absent for weeks at a time. When Jan is paralyzed in an accident on the rig, Bess is understandably devastated. This shock is quickly diminished when Jan asks Bess to meet and have sex with men, and for her to return to the hospital and tell him about the experience, which tests Bess' faith in God more than ever.
In her first theatrical role, Watson's performance as Bess remains as emotionally effecting an announcement of her presence that I can recall. Bess has a good relationship with her mother, and they live in an isolated Scottish town where the citizens walk to church on Sundays because operating a car is forbidden or at the very least frowned upon. In Jan, a guy who is bolder and more of an extrovert, Bess learns the world through her patient guide, unaware of any potential implications of her acts. Her sister Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge, From Hell) tries to warn her, but she approaches many of her new experiences relying heavily on her faith. Watson communicates it exceptionally well, and her repeated instruction from von Trier to look into the camera and to have these looks included draw you in even further to her story and relates to her so well.
While one sees the amount of torment given to the protagonist and her continued push to get past it and how painful it may be to view (particularly within the context of other von Trier films as the tactic reappears), seeing the decisions each protagonist makes is bold. But the impressive thing when it comes to the earlier, perhaps more ‘accessible' films of von Trier is how whether it is Bess, or Selma in Dancer in the Dark, they tend to stay close to their value system despite their persecution. I have not yet seen The Idiots but it is clear why people group the three films into the "Golden Heart Trilogy."
Even with Breaking and Dancer one can almost see von Trier's outlook evolve through the course of the films just through the endings. The one for Dancer is definitively darker and more abrupt, but the end of Breaking finds things almost upbeat, even mystical. There has been some issue in the subsequent years with it because possibly of its random and arbitrary nature. I find myself disagreeing with that, largely because the time that precedes it finds us exploring Bess and her faith, and the last scene serves as a reward of sorts for that exploration. While there have been some things within Breaking the Waves that we have seen in some Lars von Trier films since, this mulling of faith by the director is engaging and thoughtful.
Want to feel old for a second? Consider it has been almost 20 years since Breaking The Waves came out. Lars von Trier has explored deeper and darker themes in many of his films since, often due to mixed results. And while he has become an increasingly polarizing figure, Breaking The Waves remains his most emotionally substantial work. With the release of the second part of Nymphomaniac, this is a nice look back on a gifted director and a fantastic actress.
Using the AVC encode for this 2.35:1 high-definition presentation, Criterion has done a 4K restoration for the Blu-ray release of Breaking The Waves (striking a transfer in 6K resolution), and the results are beautiful. Shot almost exclusively with handheld cameras, the film grain remains visible yet is not intrusive during viewing, and image detail is something I took away from the Blu-ray, as the exteriors get the most justice done to them as far as spotting more detail in grasses and dirt around churches and other buildings.
Before I forget, I would mention that since this was a von Trier-supervised transfer, not only does the film look closer to what it appeared in theaters, but this is also the uncut version of the film, so it is approximately six minutes longer and I am pretty sure the original music cues from the chapters are presented too.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is fine, but in watching the film again I had forgotten how little music was included aside from that which introduces the chapters. That observation aside, the audio is very good. Dialogue is well-balanced and natural, with Jan's yelling near the end of the film replicating a seemingly ADR'd session, and the very ending of the movie includes the rear channels in a big way. There is little to no low-end over the course of the film and the movie is not overly active or immersive for that matter, yet this is more due to artistic intent than anything.
Criterion has managed to get the extras from the Region 2 release of the film as part of the "Lars von Trier" collection and bring them to the package for this Blu-ray, with the extras on a second standard definition disc. The director, along with Editor Nicholas Refn and Anthony Dod Mantle, who was a location scout for Breaking the Waves but has become a member of the von Trier stock crew, working as cinematographer on several of his films, and they join up for a scene-specific commentary. At 47:12 it is a nice listen and does not drag too much, they discuss how they shot it and von Trier recalls what they wanted to do in the film. Things such as computer-generated effects and improvisation is spotted, and while there is some watch that occurs in the movie they manage to get a bit covered and even talk about the film's larger themes. It is decent listening material.
The new contributions from Criterion are interviews conducted in May 2013 with Watson (17:11) and Skarsgard (12:26). Each discusses how they came to the material and working with von Trier on set. Each discusses how they approached the story and characters, and what they thought about working with one another. Each share their thoughts on the ending of the film and in Watson's case, how they have worked since then. The interviews are pretty good. There is also a new interview with Stig Bjorkman, director of the von Trier documentary Tranceformer which also appears on the R2 DVD set (10:26). Some of the same ground on von Trier on set is talked about here and the meaning of and influences from older directors in his films are speculated upon. The new interviews are decent in general.
The remaining extras are older holdovers, Rawlins is interviewed from 2004 (2:11) and the piece is brief, and next are four deleted and extended scenes (10:59), which include optional commentary from von Trier and Dod Mantle and are redundant to the final cut. Some video from Watson's audition is next (2:08), also with optional von Trier/Dod Mantle commentary, and von Trier's introductory clip for his film's Cannes appearance is included (:13). There is a deleted scene featuring the late Cartlidge that von Trier put in as a tribute (1:13), and a trailer (2:02) completes things.
The arrival of Breaking The Waves to Blu-ray by Criterion is welcome for several reasons. Not only from a nostalgic point of view, but having the original cut and music cues restored for American audiences is nice to see. Technically the disc looks great and sounds just as up to the task sonically. From a bonus material perspective the extras as a whole are excellent. Buying the Blu-ray for owners of the standard definition disc is a no-brainer, and for those who imported the title, the transfer alone is worth the leap to double-dip. For those unfamiliar with the film or von Trier it is mandatory viewing for one of the more unique things to witness on film.