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Making Waves in Her Debut

British actress Emily Watson has her first film role in 'Breaking the Waves'--and holds her own with no less an impressive co-star than God.

November 24, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Four years ago, British actress Emily Watson was a member of England's prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, where, she says, she spent most of her time "spear carrying and pouring ale."

In fact, Watson had never made a film before last year, when Danish director Lars von Trier gave her the lead in "Breaking the Waves," which took this year's grand jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday.

The film tells the story of a sheltered girl whose marriage plunges her into a harrowing confrontation with issues of faith, sacrifice and erotic love, and Watson appears in virtually every frame. The experience has already changed her life dramatically.

"I find all this attention confusing," says Watson, 29, during an interview at a Hollywood hotel. "Of course, it's flattering, but I think it's bad for the ego and I fear for my character.

"The media is like a big vacuum cleaner that sucks you up on its own terms, and at the moment I'm trying to regather my energy because things are coming at me very fast. My husband [British stage actor Jack Waters] and I feel like we're in the middle of a twister--we're just holding hands and waiting for it to subside."

The film, set in the early '70s in an isolated, devoutly religious Scottish coastal village, is a heady mixture of cinema verite, magic realism and kitsch melodrama that feels for the most part like a traditional morality fable. Occasionally, however, it seems to parody that form. It's an intensely challenging film in every respect, and one would expect Von Trier to be on the road courting the media to see it safely into port. Such is not the case, however, which is why the film's stars, Watson and Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, have made the trip to the U.S. to promote it.

"Lars is an eccentric man with every phobia under the sun, and he refuses to get on planes, trains or boats, which makes travel difficult," Watson says.

*

"Breaking the Waves" was shot last year in Copenhagen and Scotland, and Von Trier endured a very long car ride listening to Dolly Parton tapes all the way, plus a ferry trip, to get there. Skarsgard plays Bess' husband, Jan, and British actress Katrin Cartlidge (who won raves for her performance as a promiscuous Cockney girl in the 1994 Mike Leigh film "Naked") is her sister-in-law, Dodo.

The story is set in the early '70s, Watson says, "because that's when the North Sea oil rigs first appeared, and these hermetically sealed, repressed religious communities were invaded by an international cast of lads drinking beer and listening to outrageous music.

"Bess is an innocent girl whose goodness causes her tremendous pain," she says. "She's like a person without a skin in that she doesn't know when to stop with any emotion, and in a sense she's kind of mad--or not, as the case may be. One of the strengths of the film is that you're never quite sure, because it treads a careful line between many ambiguities.

"People are constantly asking me what the film means. Is it a Christ allegory? Is Bess Mary Magdalene? Several feminists have taken issue with the idea of a woman sacrificing herself so completely for a man, but this isn't a realistic movie. It's shot to look like a home video, but it's actually a larger-than-life fairy tale with the passions and tragedy of a 19th century novel. Lars happily points out that the film often veers into kitsch, yet the camera technique and the way the film is constructed subvert those qualities and give it an unusual rhythm that gets under your skin."

The film's cinema verite feeling is largely attributable to the fact that the camera work, by Robby Muller and Jean-Paul Meurisse, is all hand-held.

"Jean-Paul never watched rehearsals and his English wasn't too good, so he was always in the middle of every scene trying to figure out what was going on, while Lars told him where to point the camera," Watson says. "It was a very organic way of working that initially struck me as chaotic, but when I saw the film I realized Lars was 10 steps ahead of the rest of us all the time."

Von Trier--the eccentric genius behind "The Kingdom," a hugely popular television series set in a hospital that's sort of the Danish equivalent of "Twin Peaks"--has been his country's ranking enfant terrible since his debut film, "The Element of Crime," was released in 1984.

Says Skarsgard of the 41-year-old director, who once publicly demanded the death of Ingmar Bergman so that other Scandinavian filmmakers could receive more attention: "Lars likes to provoke people and behave in ways he shouldn't. As is evident in this film, he doesn't accept rules, and although there were 28 producers on this project, Lars retained total creative control over everything.

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