IN A BLEAK SCOTTISH SEACOAST VILLAGE in the 1970s, dominated by a rigid Calvinist sect with a profound distrust of outsiders, a childlike, God-fearing young woman named Bess (Emily Watson) marries an oil-rig worker named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a hearty, worldly sensualist. Ideally, you will see Lars von Trier's remarkable Breaking the Waves knowing no more than this. The narrative takes jolting turns best experienced afresh, which is how its innocent heroine sees the world--through untainted eyes. The subject of this daringly emotional movie is faith, and it demands to be taken on it.
There are few movies around that take such huge risks: this is high-wire filmmaking, without a net of irony. Von Trier's virginal heroine hurls herself into her marriage with a reckless, openhearted carnal joy that is unnerving to behold. What are we to make of this strange girl, who conducts dialogues with God (speaking both parts) and plunges into wild despair when Jan has to go back to the rig? She may well be crazy--or she may be some kind of saint. She prays to God for Jan's return, and He answers her with a cruel twist: injured in an oil-rig explosion, he comes back to her paralyzed. Knowing that physical love is no longer possible, Jan asks Bess to go out and take lovers--and to return and tell him about it. Do it for me, he urges, and such is the unconditional nature of Bess's love that she agrees, firm in her magical belief that her sexual sacrifices are God's way to bring about Jan's recovery.
Dizzying immediacy: The story has the structure of a parable or a fairy tale, and usually such stories are told in a classical, formal style. But von Trier (and the great cinematographer Robby Muller) goes the opposite way, using nervous, handheld Cinemascope images and disorienting jump cuts that draw us into the story with a dizzying cinema verite immediacy. "Breaking the Waves" doesn't look like any other movie, with its bleached-out, digitally readjusted colors and its stark landscapes, and it doesn't feel quite like any other. Its frank, tactile sexuality has an intimacy that's not at all prurient, and its unprotected emotionalism is doubly surprising coming from the Danish von Trier, whose flashy, meretricious "Zentropa" was cold as ice.
Von Trier didn't let his actors breathe in that film; here he gets astonishingly vivid performances. From the bearishly natural Skarsgard, whose open, likable Jan becomes an increasingly ambiguous figure. From Katrin Cartlidge, as Bess's loving, worried sister-in-law. And from Emily Watson, a Royal Shakespeare Company actress who makes the most transfixing screen debut in years. You stare into Watson's unguarded eyes and see a soul revealed. Like the movie, her performance leaves you shaken, off balance, haunted. Days later, your rational mind may question the film's wild leaps of faith. Watching it, you believe.