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Breaking Away

Emily Watson
October Films

First-time actress Emily Watson talks about "Breaking the Waves"

By Richard von Busack

On a remote stretch of the Scottish coast during the early 1970s, in a small town of almost parodistic religious repression, lives Bess (Emily Watson). She's a young girl of unsound mind who reaps the consequences of confusing eros and agape--of confusing in her mind physical passion, as she experiences it with her husband, and the gifts of a furious, arch-Calvinist God.

In Lars Von Trier's strangely compelling new film, Breaking the Waves, the cool, cerebral director turns as romantic as he knows how to be. Von Trier is a sort of one-man Continental revival for moviegoers starved for the style and pith of the best European films.

Previously visible in America is his 1991 Zentropa, much heralded in avant-garde circles but to my mind icy, shiny and inert. Far better was his television farrago The Hospital, an inspired Danish horror/satire sewn up and released here in 1995 as one four-hour picture, presumably to test the toughness of American bottoms.

Breaking the Waves is the first genuine example of the high quality Von Trier partisans have been claiming for him. The Danish director can thank Watson's vivid, touching performance, in what she calls "a terrible, extreme story," for at last humanizing his often coldly technical aesthetic.

Watson, a first-time movie performer, was up against one of the most difficult roles of the year. Mentally challenged characters can be the most difficult to watch. In the worst, most Oscar-honored cases, such performances literally insult our intelligence--they lecture us that the saintliness of the simple is something that we, in all our sophistication, will never know.

As Bess, a lovable, troublesome and often pessimistic young woman, Watson is so good that one can only hope that her future roles will be the size of her talents.

Watson is a Londoner, an English major at Bristol University who drifted into acting at the university. After she left school, she was signed up by the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she carried spears and understudied. In her next film, she plays another romantic heroine: Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss.

I interviewed Watson during a visit to San Francisco, right before the opening of Breaking the Waves.

Metro: How did you describe the film to your friends when you were making it?

Watson: When you're making a film you find it very difficult to stand outside of it. You just kind of play, I suppose. It's only since the film's come out and I have had to do a little talking about it, that I've really begun to have a theory, about what it is and what it means.

Breaking the Waves is a melodrama, it's a love story, it's a tragedy. It's shot to look like a very realistic home video, but it's not to be taken on real terms. It's kind of hyperreal--a terrible, extreme story about love and faith and all sorts of epic things.

Metro: Is the completed film of Breaking the Waves different from the way you imagined it when you were making the movie?

Watson: I didn't really know what to expect, because I haven't made a film before. I didn't even watch rushes from it at all until the very last day. I was too scared.

Metro: What did you see?

Watson: Some traveling shots of me on the Moped and so forth. We shot whole scenes in real time with a hand-held camera, and we'd shoot the whole scene over and over again, so each take would be the whole scene from different angles.

There'd be no master shots, no two-shots, close-ups, or all that; you were just supposed to hit your marks. They'd just kind of change the lens between takes.

The movie was made in a sort of improvisational free fall, so that the emotional story was absolutely central and everything else was peripheral to that. The way the film was made, is that the emotional story was very much at the center of it.

Nothing technical intruded upon the emotional story. There's no continuity, no accurate focus a lot of the time, and the camera was just kind of roving around in the scene trying to find out what was going on. ... You're never quite sure what anybody's motive is, whether Bess is sane or not.

Emily Watson
October Films

The film isn't telling you what to think. We're brought up on a diet of films that tell us what to think, and so it's quite unusual to have that standpoint.

I said to Lars the other day, since I get so many questions about "What does it all mean"--I asked him what was his thesis, what was his ideology. He just doesn't know.

The point of the film is to provoke people to get them to ask questions. It's not answering questions, it's asking questions, I suppose. Is Jan evil or not, is he trying to do the right thing? Is Bess nuts, is she a saint? It's a very complex beast, this movie, and it treads a very delicate line.

Metro: What's your advice for an actor playing a character who's touched in the head?

Watson: If you believe that you're touched in the head, then you're in trouble. You have to play total sanity, total belief in who you are and what you are. Most parts you play you kind of build layers of complexity. This part was about letting go of layers and just being as open as possible. Just being very openhearted. Bess has no skin, as it were. Which is a disaster for all concerned.

Metro: What was your religious background?

Watson: By birth I'm an Anglican Protestant. It's a very social religion, about making cakes, about taking communion or else you're embarrassing everyone.

So the oppressive religious community of that part of Scotland in Breaking the Waves is alien to me. But having a sense of your own spiritual center is quite important for this kind of role, if just in having a sense of something to expose.

In film, there is the feeling that the camera looks in and something is exposed inside. There are moments in Breaking the Waves, especially in one of the conversations with God, that I really felt very effected by the idea that the camera does look right inside you and sees much more than you present, somehow. Playing that kind of part, you just sort of open yourself.

Metro: What was it like working with Lars Von Trier?

Watson: Von Trier is very sensitive. He has a reputation of being quite difficult for actors--not very unpleasant, just that his work has been very formal, very much about pictures and the composition of pictures. and ideas really. Zentropa is a brilliant film I think, but it's quite cool.

He's changed himself. Now he's very respectful of the acting process; it's very collaborative, very personal. At the same time, he really trusted us. And if I ever said, "Bess wouldn't say this," he'd listen.

He allowed improvisation. Katrin Cartlidge improvised her dialogue at the wedding scene--in that scene, she looked very much like somebody who was not used to public speaking, giving a speech at a wedding.

Originally, in the script, the scene of Bess' wedding night was much more traditional, with Bess getting undressed. I felt uncomfortable and said so, and Lars answered that the scene wasn't working, that it was dull. So Lars said, "Emily, you sit down there, and Stellan [Stellan Skarsgard, who plays Bess' husband, Jan], you take your clothes off.

It turned into this hilarious scene, about the first time you see a naked man and how ridiculous it all is, where Bess shows a beguiling lack of knowledge of any sort whatsoever about men.

Metro: Was the movie shot in the order the scenes took place?

Watson: The interiors were shot in Copenhagen; then we went to the Isle of Skye. This was quite strange; you'd made all the decisions in the studio in Copenhagen, and suddenly, there you were in the place with the real people and the real weather.

In the studio, it had been so intimate. Then we got outside in Scotland, and the dynamic changed enormously. The first scene outside was with the helicopter. You couldn't hear yourself think, and suddenly the intimacy was gone. You had to rediscover your whole character somehow.

Metro: Are there Scottish churches that are as severe as what's seen here?

Watson: On a reccky [English movie slang for reconnaissance, location scouting], Lars and one of the producers went to a funeral in Scotland where the church condemned the deceased to Hell. There are, of course, churches worldwide where the women aren't allowed to speak. But I mean, it's a fictional community, based on the Free Church of Scotland.

Metro: What was it like when Breaking the Waves won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes?

Watson: It was all a bit of a shock. It was my first encounter with any kind of film publicity. It's quite hilarious, Cannes; only the French could get away with it. Outrageous camp. They treat film the way British treat royalty.

At the press conference, we kind of knew that it was going well, because the press applauded when we came in, which is quite unusual. But the screening in the evening was very scary. You get all dressed up to the nines, and you get picked up in this limo and driven out to this enormous cinema. Each of my nostrils was the size of this room.

And you go up the steps flanked by photographers on either side, and you sit in this special place where there's lights on you and they show the film. And at the end, the audience stood up an applauded and cheered, 2,000 people. Lars doesn't travel, so he wasn't there, but the producer phoned him on the mobile phone so Lars could hear the applause.

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From the November 27-December 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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