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'Waves' Crashes in Shallow Water

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1996

Lars Von Trier, the Danish director of "Zentropa" and "The Kingdom," has a great facility with the language of cinema -- specifically European cinema. "Breaking the Waves," his first English-language movie, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year, reconfirms von Trierís aesthetic bent. This almost three-hour saga, set in a Scottish coastal town in the 1970s, makes an exuberant, but ultimately empty pass at all the available art-film conceits, including mysticism, religion and downright bawdiness. The storyís about a beatific, simple-minded lassie called Bess (Emily Watson), whose devotion to her new husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), becomes alarmingly obsessive. A religious being who not only prays to God but utters what she believes to be His answer, she considers her love for Jan to be sacrosanct. When Jan heads out to sea to work aboard an oil rig, she refuses to accept his absence. When she makes a tearful request to the Almighty to bring her husband back, she gets her wish -- but not in the manner she envisaged.

A freak accident causes Jan to sustain a brutal head injury that threatens to paralyze him. Guilt-stricken that her prayer caused this dreadful mishap, Bessís devotion to her husband goes into bizarre overdrive. When Jan -- faced with a sexless, immobile life -- asks Bess to have affairs with other men and bring back dirty stories for his delectation, his wife responds with a single-minded fervor that sends this direly pious community into an appalled dither.

"Breaking the Waves" evokes such quasi-religious stories as Roberto Rosselliniís "The Miracle" and Federico Felliniís "La Strada," in which an eccentric woman, apparently connected to the deities, is branded as a lunatic. The movie also resonates with the otherworldly qualities of the early films of Werner Herzog and Andrei Tarkovsky, and it dives headlong into the straightforward, sexual permissiveness of such films as "I Am Curious (Yellow)."

Unfortunately, von Trierís film is all of these things but less. The slow, painstaking pace of the story -- made visually impressive by Robby Muellerís stunning cinematography and the craggy, computer-enhanced landscapes that dominate this world -- implies that deep, visionary things are at hand. Although it contains many visually compelling passages and some provocative moments, the movie is strangely banal and simplistic. Bessís unshakable faith -- which weathers emotional suffering, virulent hostility from her God-fearing neighbors and clergymen, and humiliating sexual degradation -- may be meant to mark her as a misunderstood, blighted saint. But her evolution never lifts us to the celestial heights that von Trier seems to intend. Instead, "Breaking the Waves" remains a disappointingly low-tide affair.

BREAKING THE WAVES (R) ó Contains graphic sexual situations, violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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