Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

I can hear the indignant, bewildered chorus now: "Three stars?!?" For those who have seen Breaking the Waves, Danish sensation Lars von Trier's most recent and most renowned assault on the senses, the lukewarm, ho-hum response implied by a three-star rating on a four-star scale is virtually unthinkable; this is the sort of movie that tends to polarize people, provoking both ecstatic paeans and vicious dismissals. And, in truth, the rating above is rather misleading -- my feelings about Breaking the Waves are anything but ordinary. If you've read my explanatory remarks concerning my rating system, you may perhaps recall that the *** rating applies both to films that I liked mildly and to films that I liked "with major reservations." In practice, about 98% of the movies to which I assign three stars fall into the former category; the latter is reserved for the rare picture -- the last one that I can recall was The Piano -- that strikes me as at once aesthetically magnificent and ideologically repugnant. I do not, to be perfectly candid, quite know what to make of Breaking the Waves; when my girlfriend met me immediately after the New York Film Festival screening in October and casually asked "So, was it good?", my unguarded reply -- anathema to the critic, but I blurted it out anyway -- was "I don't know." Make no mistake: Von Trier's parable of love and faith is an astonishing, captivating, transcendent work of art, a film so devastatingly effective that it pains me to confess that I cannot, try as I might, bring myself to love it. Yes, von Trier has fashioned an intimate epic that somehow feels both contemporary and timeless; yes, Robby Müller's jittery handheld camerawork is the sort of technical feat for which the word "virtuoso" was invented; yes, Emily Watson is so stunning as the nakedly emotional, foolhardily mercurial Bess that there's no chance in hell that she'll win the Oscar she so richly deserves. Yes, I was on the edge of my seat for two-and-a-half hours. Yes, I cried. But what I perceive as von Trier's endorsement of martyrdom and romantic masochism disturbs me to such an extent that I find myself recoiling from the film even as I attempt to embrace it. It's impossible to go into further detail without revealing what ought not to be revealed, unfortunately, since the narrative events in question take place in the final reels; I'll merely note that I was less than pleased by the film's Epilogue, and especially disgusted by the controversial final shot, with which von Trier forsakes once and for all the ambiguity Breaking the Waves so desperately required. My queasiness aside, however, I urge everyone who gives a damn about the movies to see this film. It's a masterpiece that happens to piss me off, but it remains, nonetheless, a masterpiece. Yes, a three-star masterpiece. Now you've seen everything.