Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves makes its way back into The Criterion Collection with a new dual-format edition. The film is given a new high-definition transfer presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The dual-layer Blu-ray disc delivers the film in 1080p/24hz while the first dual-layer DVD delivers a standard-definition version of the same transfer, which is enhanced for widescreen televisions.
This is a very different looking film in comparison to what most have been used to over the years. The film was originally given an over processed video look during its initial theatrical release and subsequent home video releases. That look is now completely gone, and this 4k restoration taken from a 6k scan of the original camera negative now actually looks like a film. It looks so clean I’m sure it’s going to throw off many when they first pop on either the DVD or Blu-ray (I was completely thrown since I actually thought the film was shot on video.)
Another noticeable difference is the colour scheme: this film has a heavier brown tinge to it than I recall from previous releases. The colours are rendered beautifully, though, with superb saturation, and they're accompanied by nice black levels. I actually didn’t mind the change at all and didn’t find it distracting. It seemed to suit the film but may have been put in place as an alternative to the previous “video” look, unless, of course, this is how the colours looked in theaters.
As to the rest of the presentation it looks great. The transfer is nice through and through with only a few minor issues. In general the image is sharp with crisp details and great textures and depth but the film has a few out-of-focus shots, a by-product of how the film was shot (the camera work is primarily handheld.) A handful of the grainier sequences, mainly in low-lit scenes, also look a bit noisy, maybe over-sharpened a bit. Grain in other sequences looks far better. There are also a few minor blemishes remaining limited to a couple of scratches and bits of debris, but generally the source looks very clean.
The DVD is unfortunately quite a bit noisier, and the very grainy sequences look generally poor. Other than these compression issues the transfer is still pretty sharp, but there is no question that the Blu-ray’s presentation is vastly superior.
So after the initial shock I think the film’s new look works and actually benefits the film. It’s a surprisingly beautiful looking presentation. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
I’m not sure how the film played theatrically but I fell in love with this new DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track on the Blu-ray. The film always seemed to be monaural to me and that presentation is mostly that here, with noticeable stereo effects during for music that plays during the chapter titles. I was wondering why Criterion would even bother with a 5.1 track, but that is answered with the film’s conclusion, where the surrounds kick in, and how. There’s a strong amount of depth and clarity here, and the effects are brilliantly split between the speakers.
The rest of the track is clean, with nice range and depth, but again it plays mostly monaural throughout 99% of the film. But don’t fret, there’s a good payoff. The DVD’s Dolby Digital track plays about the same, though admittedly the final moments don’t come off as sharp when the surrounds kick in. Still, quality is excellent and the mix is rather clever.
(As a note, David Bowie’s Life on Mars has been restored after missing from previous home video releases.) 8/10
This new special edition presents a number of special features starting with a select-scene audio commentary featuring von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle. This commentary is a completely separate feature from the main film, edited down to 47-minutes. It’s mostly technical in nature, covering the film’s editing style (which they call “violent editing”) and explaining some of the choices, like placing cuts in the middle of shots, which they felt helped move the action. They talk about a number of sequences specifically, and von Trier states his distaste for a few, though amusingly is annoyed when Refn speaks out about his one issue with the film, a line that was dubbed in later. There are a few surprises as well, like how Cartlidge’s character was cut out of one scene after an awful reaction from test audiences (the scene is actually included intact in the deleted scenes section of the supplements.) They talk about the themes of the film later on, and address the ending and the various reactions to it. It’s an interesting track, but I guess I was bit disappointed it leaned more on the technical side. What was most surprising was probably how light and actually fairly amusing the track is, especially with von Trier lamenting over some of his choices, cursing faintly heard under his breath.
Filmmaker and critic Stig Björkman provides an exclusive interview for this release. He was on location during filming and he talks about his experience being around the filmmaker during that time. He talks about the director’s eccentricities, but describes him as being happy while making the film. He also gets into the Dogme ’95 manifesto, released just before Breaking the Waves was made, and also gets into his early films, which were more technical (probably because he was scared of the actors) and how Breaking the Waves marked a huge leap for the filmmaker. At only 10-minutes it is brief, but it offers a few notable insights into the film and the filmmaker.
Criterion also provides two new interviews with the stars of the film. Emily Watson leads the pack with her interesting talk. This was her first film after some television work, and she describes the shock of the experience. She speaks fondly of von Trier and her costars, and was surprised by what the director had her do (he gave her the freedom to stare into the camera as often as she liked.) She talks about her reaction to seeing the film (she was horrified) but how that calmed after the praise started coming in and she could see it in a different light. What was most fascinating about the interview is when she talks about her own experience growing up in what she classifies as a sort of cult, and how she used that and her eventual escape from it in her performance, even if she didn’t necessarily realize she was using that experience. It’s a fantastic, honest interview, not what I was expecting. She is thankful for the film (and how it boosted her career) though I was surprised a bit by her feelings on the film. Her interview runs 17-minutes.
Stellan Skarsgård next talks about his experience with the film, covering how he first became familiar with von Trier when he saw Element of Crime. He states he had a desire to work with the director, but only when he actually started to “care about people.” Once he saw the script for Breaking the Waves he thought that was it. He talks about how one successfully works with the “blunt” director, which calls for being able to take a bit of abuse, intentional or not. He recalls his reaction to the film (much more positive than Watson’s) and his thoughts about the ending. Along with Watson’s it’s a wonderful firsthand account of the experience in making the film.
Criterion also digs up an interview with actor Adrian Rawlins, who plays Dr. Richardson in the film. This 2-minute clip appears to come from a lengthier interview more than likely filmed for some other DVD release back in 2004. In the clip he talks about his experience with von Trier, which was a loose and freeing experience, a unique experience overall. A nice companion to the other interviews.
Criterion next includes a 2-minute excerpt from Emily Watson’s audition tape. She does a couple of lines but I think of most interest would be where she performs one of her prayers, where she also speaks in God’s voice. Optional is an audio commentary featuring von Trier, Refn, and Mantle, where they talk about this audition footage and von Trier mentions what drew him to cast her.
Of some great interest is a collection of deleted and extended scenes, 2 of each to be precise. Both of the deleted scenes are rather interesting, and one actually confirms a motivation in the film (why did Jan really ask Bess to do what he asked her to) and another shows Bess visiting Dr. Richardson, pleading for him not to commit her. The optional commentaries for both explain why they were cut. The first scene was cut because of the horrendous acting (which is true) and the second was cut because von Trier didn’t like how it played out. The first extended scene expands on a conversation Bess and Dodo have at a cliff. In the film commentary von Trier talks about this scene and comments on how much he dislikes it, finding the dialogue odd. Seeing the extended scene somewhat confirms this and von Trier sounds horrified watching it on the optional commentary. The second extended scene was also mentioned in the film’s commentary, it is the one where Dodo’s presence was cut out after test audiences objected to it (I won’t spoil what scene this was in.) The scenes would have altered the film, at least somewhat, but not in a terribly bad way I feel. They’re all really good additions to the release and all worth viewing. In all they run over 10-minutes.
There’s a short outtake in memory of Katrin Cartlidge, who passed away in 2001. This outtake, running a little over a minute, presents the scene in the church where Dodo and Bess are praying and Bess asks her how Jan is doing, Dodo subsequently shushing her. Cartlidge breaks out laughing during the awkward silence, which according to the commentary track happened frequently throughout the production. I imagine von Trier was charmed by this one and felt the need to include it for her.
Following that light bit is another one, featuring von Trier himself. All directors at the Cannes Film Festival where Breaking the Waves premiered were asked to create short promotion videos for their entries. This 17-second video features von Trier playfully telling the audience he shouldn’t play any scenes out-of-context, so they won’t be seeing anything here, but it ends on a rather funny note.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer.
For the DVD version, the first disc presents the film and trailer while the remaining supplements—including the select-scene commentary—are found on the second dual-layer DVD.
David Sterritt writes a nice essay on the film in the included booklet, covering its themes, the various reactions from audiences, and its legacy. The booklet also features a reprint of an interview between Stig Björkman and Lars von Trier in 1999 about the film. Here von Trier talks about writing the film, its characters, its presentation of religion, the editing, the Dogme ’95 manifesto, copying the film to video and back again, and what happens to Bess’ character by the end of the film. Von Trier is very forthcoming in it and it covered the film’s themes more than what we got in the commentary. It’s an excellent read.
With the film being almost 20-years old now (man, do I feel old) I was expecting maybe more critical analysis of the film, but there’s very little here other than comments from Björkman, and quick insights from cast and crew. I was also disappointed that there was no explanation as to why von Trier felt the need to remove the video processed look (unless I just missed it.) Still, I enjoyed going through everything, and all of the content was quite entertaining. 8/10