Breaking the Waves (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

What does a movie have to have in order to be a great movie? Are there minimum requirements? For example, how important is technical achievement? If we filmed Branagh's Henry V and left the lenscap on, would it still be a good movie? What if we had the world's greatest cast in the world's greatest play and simply filmed it on stage from the front row with a hidden camera? Would that be a good movie?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but they all pertain to this movie. It's a powerful story, and it's brilliantly acted. But it couldn't be worse technically. It's filmed entirely with a hand-held camera and that camera was held by an unsteady hand which often moved too fast from face to face. The lighting is poor and inconsistent. (For example, people's clothes seem to change in the middle of a scene, because the uncontrolled lighting changes the colors from one set-up to the next.) The cuts are done by simply stopping one scene and abruptly starting another, the same way that scenes would change if you edited a movie entirely in the camera. Some scenes are so bereft of color that they seem to be in B&W, or rather B&G (black and light green). In some close-ups, Emily Watson's hair is the same color as her eyes. (I think they are supposed to be auburn and blue, respectively). There are so many squinty-eyed facial close-ups that I half expected to see Lee van Cleef and Eli Wallach getting ready to draw. Half of the camera set-ups are out of focus at one time or another. The movie is interrupted with chapter headings, which are syrupy color-saturated scenes with a top 40 rock hit playing in the background, and are completely inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the movie.

Why go on? You get the point. Technically, it might be the worst major movie ever released. Plan Nine From Outer Space looks like Jurassic Park next to this thing. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, made 75 years earlier, is much better technically. And I'm not joking. Reviewers glossed over this point. People euphemistically called it "experimental" or "cinema verité", but the simple truth is that the emperor has no clothes. You could do better in your basement with a home camcorder and your drunken college buds. But could you make a better movie? Absolutely not. Not many people have EVER made a better movie.

Which brings us back to the original questions. Rating technical achievement on a scale of 1 to 100, Juraissic Park must be 90+, and Breaking the Waves is probably less than 1. Does that mean Juraissic Park is ipso facto a better movie? I don't think so. The technical component is, as I see it, only a means to an end. The real evaluation point of the film medium is its ability to involve us in the story and move us in some way - to laughter, or tears, or enlightenment, or fright. This movie succeeds for many people, so the technique didn't get in the way of a lot of award nominations.

Having said that, let me add that it's too long and slow for me, and I could have done without the last 15 seconds, which are cornier than a drive through Iowa. And I don't think the odd and pretentiously déclassé pseudo-documentary technique makes it better. Quite the opposite. But the film still touched many people very deeply, and is a deeply spiritual movie in its own way. (Note: many religious people objected to the content, and many feminists objected to the way it portrayed the exploitation of a simple, submissive woman.)

Is Emily Watson the greatest actress in the world? I don't know. I've seen her in other movies and she's been good but never this good. This is one of the greatest performances I've ever seen, maybe the best ever by a woman. Perhaps she will never again equal what she did here. Maybe she was just born to do this, like Brando playing Stanley Kowalski. But whether the woman was flying at her natural level or just soaring on a once-in-a-lifetime gust of wind, she did a helluva job in a role that required her to do a great range of emotions and many pseudo-monologues. In prayer, for example, she spoke both her own voice and God's imagined responses. And she had to do all this through the voice of an off-kilter woman with an outrageous Northern accent.

The plot: Watson's character is a member of a reclusive and xenophobic community. She is perhaps a bit daft, or perhaps a bit slow, or perhaps just a simple person who wants to do what she thinks is right. Her community thinks she is a few bricks shy of a load. She has to plead with the local church elders to allow her to marry an outsider. When she does marry her strapping oil rig worker, this virgin finds absolute and immediate physical and spiritual delight with her husband. But their happiness is shattered when Jan is injured in an industrial accident, and may never walk again. For reasons not explained to us, the bedridden Jan decides that his wife needs to sleep with other men and tell him about it. Her submissiveness to his will sets up further tragedy.

A simple summary doesn't really give you a feel for it. You have to feel the motivations through the Watson character, and you have to feel with her that she is always trying to do the right thing, out of love. She somehow pulls that off and allows you inside her completely, becoming achingly vulnerable in every way. Astounding.


DVD info from Amazon

  • Not a good DVD. The only feature are some written production notes and a trailer.

  • The transfer is anamorphic 2.35:1. Because of the unique look of the film, it's not possible to say whether the faded colors are intentional, the fault of the print, or the fault of the DVD transfer.



Emily Watson's breasts are seen in several camera set-ups. She is also seen stark naked, almost facing the camera, on her back on a bed.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Three and a half stars, close to four. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4 (but among his top 10 that year), Maltin 3.5.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb viewers rated it 7.7 out of 10.
  • With their dollars ... $4 million gross.

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