breaking the waves
oil rig Bess kneels outside of a pew, casts her eyes to the roof, and begins to talk to the Lord, like a child reciting her prayers before bed. She voices both sides of the conversation, switching between her own small supplications and the deep and demanding tones of the Creator of all. Creator of the godlessly harsh stretch of coast outside the kirk, of the close knit and stony hearted Presbyterian community that lives there, and of the explosive mix of madness and purity that is Bess. When she meets and marries Jan, an oil-rig worker - an Outsider - something's got to give, and it isn't going to be God, or the elders of the community, who have no wish to recognise that it must also have been God who created the 1970s.

Lars Von Trier looks like being the successor to the late Krystof Kieslowski, whose 'Short Films', 'Double Life', and 'Trilogy' have been the best open-ended opposition to the watertight and closed-off world of Hollywood in recent years. Both are European directors of original style who are attempting to convey spirit (not necessarily religious spirituality) in the context of emotional upheaval that paradoxically includes unique moments of ordinary and everyday oddity. They spurn the trick of relying on the one big moment of sentimentality to close an emotionally dry picture. Film is the most manipulative art, and we choose to be manipulated everytime we sit down in the cinema or open a book. But with both British film-makers and those in Hollywood offering almost to the exclusion of all else to slap and tickle us with fantasy and farce, the emotional (sur)realism of the best European and Antipodean directors (Jane Campion and Peter Jackson, director of 'Heavenly Creatures') are welcome moments of intense passion.

This way of looking at the current state of cinema sets an unhealthy burden of cult upon the films and directors so far mentioned. I don't know about you, but I tend to avoid other people's cult favourites, so that I can only like a cult film if I was with it from its release (I rate snob-factor 10, I know). The burden weighs more heavily on European `art' cinema, with its enhanced projection of aura, atmosphere and vision, and on films made in Oz and NZ, where a strong sense of isolation pervades the art. Hollywood depends upon and likes to brew up cults, because they're good for business. Besides, Hollywood movies present rather more concrete features for fans and theorists to get their teeth into: plot, dialogue, the ironic tension between the instantly recognisable faces of stars and the characters they are playing. Something like 'The Player' is wham-bam brilliant, but it allows no pause for thought as the plot carries you along like a canoe bouncing down rapids to the inevitable waterfall. Periods of hiatus are conveniently edited out and there is no space for the mundane yet - when you look at them in the right light - beautiful microworlds within which we all live. The substance is all in the framework of the film, and absent from the characters themselves, who are simply facets of the framework. The plot-driven schematics of 'X-Fiction' and 'The Pulp Files' are undoubtedly entertaining, but they lack the depth of films with predominantly character-driven premises. I think a film should let you think about it as it goes along, not just afterwards. This is what 'Breaking The Waves' does to perfection.

It's as individual a film as they come, out on its own, visually engaging and unusual. Hand-held camerawork and conversational close-ups serve to involve you in the drama. The filtered colour mixes the yellowish tinge that Kieslowski gave to 'A Short Film About Killing' and the orangey glow of 'The Double Life Of Veronique'. The mutating frames that break up the film into chapters show the harsh landscape in a milder light, and `Life On Mars' and Rod Stewart seem strangely appropriate at these points, admitting that there is an outside world going about its business, if only for a few moments.

It's expertly cast and acted. Emily Watson is as great as everyone says, playing the vulnerable bridge between the contrasting two sets of characters, her face steering the fine line between emotional meltdown and a hard, brave misery. Stellan Skarsgard as Jan easily handles the difficult task of being rugged and super-'70s one minute, and paralysed from the neck down the next. After a while you can even forget that Katrin Cartlidge, who plays Bess's best friend Dodo, was Lucy Collins in the first years of 'Brookside'. And there are many impressive scenes. At the wedding reception, one of the rig workers downs a can in one and crushes it by way of challenging a nearby elder. The long-suffering whitebeard responds not only by drinking a pint of lemon barley water, but also by crushing the glass in his bony hand. Of the many other moments, Bess's phone call to Jan on the oil rig is achingly sad. And there is the painful way Von Trier holds up the inevitable accident on the rig when you just want him to get it over with. This is audience manipulation, but then the film's main themes are manipulation and free will, both of which Bess struggles with.

It all comes down to the same subjective shit in the end. The films you are prepared to involve yourself in from the beginning, and those you vow to stay outside of. And that comes down to whether you've read reviews and whether you trust them, or otherwise know how they suggest to you what they don't mean to suggest; it comes down to the ambience and other customers of the particular cinema you go to; it comes down to all your previous cinema experiences, and your preference or otherwise for other artforms altogether; it comes down to whether a film seems to indicate its makers are for or against the same sorts of things as yourself (with all due tolerance of diverging world views). It all comes down to whether you judge a film on its own merits and in its own terrain, or alternatively, like me, you just can't help getting Macroanalytical about things...

Daniel Williams, January 1997

The other point of view