My current Top 5

My current Top 5

1/11/2010

Best Actress 1996: Emily Watson in "Breaking the Waves"

The movies by Lars van Trier are certainly not for everybody and I will be the first one to admit that Breaking the Waves is a less than perfect film. But Lars van Trier is always able to get astonishingly raw and unaffected performances from the women he is working with.

I have to say that Breaking the Waves is a movie that’s doubtless far above my head and I probably did not even understand 1% of what van Trier wanted to say but I try the best I can.

It was probably a good thing that Breaking the Waves was the first time for Emily Watson in front of the camera. Her inexperience and van Trier’s direction helped her to give a performance that is a masterpiece in honesty and uncompromising dedication. She completely allowed herself to disappear into the character of Bess and did so without any reservation but instead expressed every emotion with total frankness and, as a result, gave a tour-de-force that is rarely seen on the screen.

With Breaking the Waves, Lars van Trier handles various themes that dominate Bess’s life: religion, love and sex. She is a deeply religious woman, dominated by a deeply religious village community. And with the same dedication that she follows God, she also falls in love with Jan, her future husband. She loves him unconditionally and bases her whole existence on her love to him. With him, she also begins to experience sexual love and for her, this love is a gift of God.

Bess is a very naïve, insecure and probably backward girl. We soon learn that she had already been to a hospital. She is a woman who is pure and good and her best friend says of her that she is someone who would give anything to anyone. But this feature of her will also be her destruction.

Bess is caught in a world of religious intolerance and fanaticism which has formed her all her life. When she goes to church, she literally talks to God – she talks to him with that quiet, always insecure voice and then answers with sudden conviction. Her God is not a loving God – he warns her, he threatens her and she tries the best she can to please him but the love that has entered her life makes it more and more difficult for her to do this. In the world of Bess, it seems that love and religion cannot co-exist.

When Jan has to leave her to work on an oil-rig, it almost breaks her apart. She prays for him to come again earlier even so “God” warns her to do that. In her eyes, God then answers her prayers but in the worst ways: Jan has a terrible accident that leaves him paralyzed and results in his earlier arrival. From now on, Bess blames herself and is willing to do anything that could make Jan be better again. Finally, Jan asks her to have sex with other men and then tell him about it. While she is reluctant at first, she starts to believe that by doing this she can help him to become better again and what follows is probably the most devastating process of self-humiliation that was ever put on the screen.

There are few performances that makes one feel so completely helpless. To watch how Bess, a character so pure and innocent, degrades herself is already as painful as possible but it’s even more disturbing to see how Bess continues to believe that she is doing the best thing for Jan. Bess realizes how she removes herself from God and the religious community – when she prays and suddenly, God doesn’t answer anymore, it’s a shocking and heartbreaking moment. But when she is willing to go back on a ship to have sex with a group of violent men, God is there again because Bess is sacrificing herself for Jan.

Bess is such a simple and at the same time immensely complex character and Emily Watson was able to show all sides or her flawlessly and combines this with matching facial work that shows Bess naivety, her pain and her joy gloriously. Few actresses have ever so totally let go in their performances – Bess’s screams of pain when Jan leaves her, her desperate tears when her mother won’t open the door for her and the heartbreaking final moments in the hospital are among the most shattering moments ever seen.

Emily Watson’s portrayal of Bess’s thinking and logic, her love and feelings, it as flawless as it is devastating. The moments when Bess becomes an outcast in her village are almost impossible to watch. Bess is a woman who never acts out of any dubious motives – she always tries to do the right thing for Jan. When she tells her mother that she is sorry that she couldn’t be a good girl, it sums up all that Bess is. She is always worried about the feelings of others, she tries to act the way she should but her way of loving Jan is too grand and private to be understandable for anyone else.

The way Emily Watson was able to bring Bess to life without ever making it seem unrealistic and the way she was able to connect to the viewer is astonishing. Bess lives in her own world and has her own points-of-views that make it hard to understand her, but Emily Watson perfectly builds a relationship between herself and the viewer that makes it possible to follow her without ever looking down on her. Emily Watson never tries to use Bess’s tragic life as a way to make her more likeable. She makes Bess such a fragile character who actively runs into her own deterioration.

Emily Watson creates one of the most tragic characters in movie history and gives a performance that is monumental in its honesty, rawness and dedication. For this, she gets

1 comment:

Luís Ximenes said...

It was because of your blog that I became crazy about actresses.

I love your writing style.

Congrats from Brazil!