Interview with Stellan about "Breaking the Waves"
November 21, 1996


People don't die for love the way they used to. It's Prozac and Haagen-Dazs and Jenny Craig and on to the next experience. Faith and sacrifice are pretty much out of fashion too.

Which is why Lars von Trier's (The Kingdom, The Element Of Crime) breathtaking Breaking The Waves, for all its modern technique, seems curiously old-fashioned. When Bess, a simple, innocent girl living in a small Scottish village, falls for Jan, an older, more experienced oil-rig worker, her love is so strong it removes any sense of self-preservation.

When Jan (Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård) is injured, he is afraid Bess (newcomer Emily Watson) will be lonely and convinces her that if she takes lovers and tells him about her experiences, he will feel better. She believes him and sets out to sacrifice herself for her husband.

"The way I wanted to portray him was different from other characters in love that I've done," says Skarsgård, 45, and a veteran of more than 40 movies, in Toronto during the film festival. "Normally when I play a person who is in love, I mix the love with a little narcissism, a little selfishness - all those things we all have in us that are the reason that nothing is ever pure. But this love had to be absolutely pure. That is the key, his longing for the pure emotions."

"The relationship between Jan and Bess had to feel totally real. And there is just 10 minutes at the beginning of the film to show happy love. And how the hell do you show happy love? It's very hard to do sex scenes so that they turn out well. It's like this: a fuck feels divine, but it looks quite idiotic."

Von Trier recently announced that he will no longer speak to the press because "my comments seem more and more forced, pathetic and meaningless," causing his partner in the production company Zentropa to tell a Danish newspaper that "he's gone strange in the head." But working with the director was a wonderful experience for Skarsgård.

"He (Trier) is a damned neurotic person and he usually feels awful. But he doesn't feel awful on the set. The set is enormously fun and nurturing. Zentropa Productions is like a family, they take care of everybody, it's so damned nice. It's the best of Danish coziness, you could say. There is a feeling of love and warmth, and that makes you all soft and warm. And that makes it possible to make a movie like this ring very true. Because that warmth is not in the script."

While there might not be much warmth, there are certainly enough other emotions to leave you severely shaken up (and not only due to the hand held camera) for a long time. And while Skarsgård - who says he can't understand why he never gets cast in comedies as he's "one hell of a cheerful guy" - is good, the greatness belongs to Emily Watson.

"She was fantastic. I was a little nervous in the beginning, because she was British, which means she had to have other ideas about nakedness and sex scenes than we Scandinavians have, and it was her first film, and it was a woman's part that is written maybe every 20th year. And she was terror stricken. But she knew that if she could do this, she would never need to be afraid again. She showed enormous courage."

There have been grumblings about Breaking The Waves being misogynist, the character of Bess being just another sacrificial lamb on the altar of macho. Skarsgård has this to say to those who take that line:

"It's very fortunate that Jesus wasn't a woman, because in that case they would have thought that the Bible was a really shitty book. It makes absolutely no difference if it was a man or a woman in that role. The film is not about gender. It is about love. And I thought: at last a love story, a film about love where the love is enormous, where love is as great as love could possibly be, but almost never is."

[Eye Weekly]