Imagine a film about a woman who is pure and simple and good, a creature who might have stepped out of the austere, transcendental work of Carl Theodor Dreyer or Robert Bresson. Now consider what contemporary director would have an affinity for such a character.
No, Lars von Trier didn’t occur to me either. A cinematic trickster whose films display more stylistic bravura than emotional depth, the Danish writer/director hasn’t exactly shown the rigor and passion of a Dreyer or a Bresson. Indeed, such von Trier films as Zentropa (his only U.S. art-house hit) seem the work of a cinematic dilettante, albeit a deft one, which doesn’t bode well for a movie that means to be as profound as it is flashy.
Breaking the Waves turned out more flashy than profound, but this arty melodrama is not unaffecting. Skeptical viewers will be unable to credit the film’s conclusions—and in particular its final, “miraculous” shot—but many of the scenes are nonetheless riveting, in large part because of the performance of Emily Watson, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran making her film debut. The movie emphasizes artifice—as von Trier customarily does—but it unleashes emotions that are sometimes the equal of its illusions.
Though epic in length (156 minutes) and setting (the north Scotland coast), Breaking the Waves is essentially a simple tale of love and devotion. Despite the misgivings of the elders of her brutally austere (and misogynistic) Calvinist church, Bess (Watson) marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgrd), a lusty if slightly lumpy Scandinavian worker from an offshore oil rig in the nearby North Sea. At the wedding, Jan’s friends are bemused by the Scots’ dourness, while the Scots are shocked at the oil workers’ exuberance. Bess, however, is thrilled by her new mate, his friends, and their music. (The soundtrack evokes the film’s early-’70s setting with Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, Elton John, Roxy Music, T. Rex, and Jethro Tull.) She also relishes sex, and her first few days with Jan are spent in erotic rapture. Then Jan must return to the oil platform, and Bess crashes.
The new bride has both beliefs and emotions of childlike intensity. She’s “not right in the head,” Bess’ protective sister-in-law Dodo (Naked’s Katrin Cartlidge) warns her new husband, who shrugs off that information, and it’s eventually revealed that Bess has spent time in a mental institution. After Jan leaves, the audience gets to see the flip side of her sense of wonder, and it’s harrowing.
At the small, intentionally crude church, Bess engages God in conversation, shifting her vocal timbre to impersonate the paternal deity she imagines. She begs that Jan return home, a plea answered perversely by the story’s true demiurge, von Trier. As swiftly as the film can cut to the rig and back to the town, Jan returns to Bess in a body brace, paralyzed from the neck down after an injury on the rig. Kindly Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins) tells Bess than Jan’s life may not be worth living, and she returns to the chapel to renegotiate.
It’s not God but Jan, however, who makes a suggestion about what to do next. He insists that Bess take a lover and tell him about their exploits, suggesting that the erotic charge might save his life. “If I die,” he says, “it’s because love couldn’t keep me alive.” Bess resists this notion at first, but when she decides to fulfill Jan’s wishes she does so with typically unguarded zeal. Her dogged pursuit of eros attracts the well-meaning solicitude of Dodo and Dr. Richardson, and then the less understanding attention of the townspeople and the church elders. Being ostracized is not the end of Bess’ travails, though; ultimately, she must sacrifice more than her reputation.
This scenario echoes several films (notably Ordet) by Dreyer, the only person besides von Trier who qualifies as a well-known Danish director. It also suggests the severe provincial Protestantism of Bergman and the modern mysticism of Tarkovsky (especially The Sacrifice), as well as Fassbinder’s fierce, semi-ironic melodramas. Further complicating the scheme, Robby Muller’s kinetic cinematography is handheld, washed-out, and only tentatively in focus, giving the film’s religious hysteria and mysticism the inarguable look of documentary. (The movie was shot on film, then transferred to video, then transferred back, thus degrading the image.) Finally, as if to emphasize its contrivance, Breaking the Waves is divided into chapters, each one introduced by an almost-still life, a series of landscapes that look artificial but are betrayed by some bit of motion: a shift of light, a rolling wave. (These compositions echo one in Alain Resnais’ Providence, where a real wave breaks against a painted oceanic backdrop—which, if not the inspiration for the film’s title, is an odd coincidence indeed.)
“God gives everyone a talent,” says Bess, explaining what hers is: “I can believe.” Belief, however, may be exactly the problem for the film’s viewers. Though von Trier claims to have wept as he supervised the shooting, Bess’ saintly passion seems as ersatz as the pseudo-documentary camera movements. The cast gives the tale a conviction it doesn’t entirely deserve, and in the week that also brings the high-gloss romance of The English Patient, Skarsgrd and Watson’s lack of fashion-magazine glamour is bracing. (It’s hard to imagine the prissy Helena Bonham Carter, who originally had the part, playing Bess.) Breaking the Waves is a powerful, distinctive film, but those qualities—as is usual for von Trier—are derived more from style than content.
They’ve stopped numbering the Star Trek movies, so it’s momentarily startling to consider that Star Trek: First Contact is only the eighth of them. Although this is the first to jettison entirely the 30-year veterans of the Kirk/Spock crew, it still seems very familiar. Once more, the crew of the Enterprise (now the Enterprise E) must save the world from an alien threat that isn’t nearly as alien as it first seems, and yet again the ship travels back into Earth’s past (although in this case it’s still the audience’s future).
Another Trek tradition is the actor/director, Jonathan Frakes, who plays Cmdr. William Riker, also directed, and at this task he’s closer to the competent Leonard Nimoy than the maladroit William Shatner; First Contact is lively enough, and free of the ponderousness of the worst of the series. Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore’s script is fairly silly, but at least it doesn’t venture into crackpot theology or rely heavily on wink-wink jokes about the creakiness of the cast.
The threat this time is the Borg, a “collective” cyber-humanoid race modeled on insects. (A few decades ago that would have made them Commies.) After a preliminary battle, these creepy conformists travel back in time to 2063 to thwart the first warp-drive flight of alcoholic aeronautic inventor Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell, Babe’s Farmer Hoggett). Without this crucial event, the inhabitants of the devastated post-World War III Earth will never make “first contact” with a more advanced race (guess which one), and thus the Federation of Planets will not be formed and Earth will never eliminate poverty, ignorance, and tooth decay. (This history of the Federation is a good deal less jolly than the conception of the original series, which didn’t suggest that future-Earth needed outside consultants to achieve high-tech millennium.)
Despite the Borg’s inhuman collectivization, the race is here personified by the autonomous Borg Queen (Institute Benjamenta’s Alice Krige), who’s interested in taking either Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) or gee-whiz android Data (Brent Spiner) as her king. A crude personification of the female threat to male authority, the queen coos like a phone-sex worker as she offers Data the possibility of becoming human (complete with the opportunity to mate with her shapely cyborg self). As Cochrane’s feisty assistant Lily, Alfre Woodard provides a less simpering female lead, although it is of course the boys who ultimately save the world.
None of this will surprise any viewer possessing a passing acquaintance with Star Trek and its various offshoots. Like the previous generation of Starfleeters, the next generation lives in a futuristic world that’s curiously fixated on the 19th and 20th centuries; First Contact invokes Berlioz, Moby Dick, the Jazz Age, and Steppenwolf (the band, not the book). Still, in their overearnest way, the Trek films continue to inspire hope for tomorrow. When it’s revealed that Cochrane has a jukebox full of rockabilly, futurists can sigh in relief: Apparently techno won’t survive World War III.