First published in the Guardian on 16 August, 2019
Breaking the Waves is one of the most brutal, probing and provocative films ever made about Scotland. It’s also one of the most impressively silent. Lars von Trier’s 1996 breakthrough portrays an insular Hebridean community that is fiercely defensive of its values in the face of incomers and offshore oil development. The elders wield religious dogma in an attempt to protect a young woman, Bess McNeill, but their collective care pivots into tyranny and their fear turns xenophobic. Bess (played with galling vividness by Emily Watson) marries an oil worker called Jan; he becomes paralysed after an accident on the rig then instructs Bess to keep their relationship alive by having sex with other men and telling him about it. Von Trier shows it all in bleak, intimate and savagely quiet detail. With the exception of chapter interludes charged with 1970s rock (Procol Harum, Roxy Music, Elton John) there’s no music underscoring the austere camerawork. We feel the silent scrutiny of an island with no bells in its church steeple: the elders physically removed them and drowned them in the sea.
What happens when you add sound to such formidably oppressive filmic hush? It took New York composer Missy Mazzoli years to answer that question. “My librettist Royce Vavrek suggested the idea of making an opera out of Breaking the Waves in 2013. I said absolutely not – I thought the film was untouchable,” she tells me at the rehearsal studios of Scottish Opera, whose new production of Mazzoli’s acclaimed opera opens in Edinburgh this month. “But it was a question that wouldn’t leave me alone. The film deals with big ideas about the nature of loyalty, the nature of faith. Opera is a place for big ideas.”
The film is packed with classic operatic trademarks. The devoted, mistreated woman – fixture of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. The woman who sacrifices herself for the salvation of a man – Wagner’s redemptive heroines. The seething small-community groupthink to a backdrop of menacing, hallowed seascapes – think Peter Grimes of the north. Mazzoli recognises the weight of that lineage but her broad, brooding post-minimalism carries it lightly.