Opera revisits dark dynamic of Danish film ‘Breaking the Waves’

Lars von Trier's bleak and erotic 1996 movie "Breaking the Waves" has become a modern film classic partly because it gives viewers wide freedom to interpret the plot.

Opera revisits dark dynamic of Danish film 'Breaking the Waves'
Lars Von Trier, shown here in Copenhagen in 2000, gave his blessing to the opera but was not directly involved. Photo: Lars Møller / SCANPIX NORDFOTO
Are the characters' motivations pure? Are they sinister? Does it matter?
Now a new opera adaptation of the Danish director's film wrestles with the same questions, this time exploring them with music.
Composer Missy Mazzoli says she hesitated to create the work when librettist Royce Vavrek first proposed it.
“I thought it's such a brilliant film, so why mess with it?” she told AFP. “But the more I thought about it, the more I could hear a musical world that added a new dimension to the emotional landscape of the film.”
“Breaking the Waves” premiered in September at Opera Philadelphia, where Mazzoli was composer-in-residence, and is being presented for a second time at Prototype, New York's annual festival of experimental opera that opened on Thursday.
Set in the Scottish Highlands, “Breaking the Waves” focuses on the psychologically troubled and sexually unfulfilled Bess, who marries Jan, a Nordic oil-rig worker.
After Jan is injured and sexually incapacitated, he encourages his wife to seek other lovers, scandalizing their Christian village as Bess pursues increasingly dubious trysts.
Von Trier is asking “what does it mean to be a good person when everybody in the community has different ideas of what it means to be good?” Mazzoli said.
“Particularly for a woman, this is a very familiar feeling,” she said. “The line of behavior to walk on is very thin.”
Pure love?
In the two decades since von Trier released his “Breaking the Waves,” viewers have debated Jan's intentions. Does he want the best for Bess, or is he acting out of his own pleasure — or even a desire to hurt her?
The late film critic Roger Ebert — who ranked “Breaking the Waves” among the top 10 films of the 1990s — concluded that Jan's reasons ultimately do not matter because Bess believes she needs to oblige his requests.
Mazzoli is firmly in one camp — she thinks Jan's love is pure. While her opera preserves the ambiguity, she says her conclusion was important for the music as she opens the work with melodic love songs between Bess, portrayed by soprano Kiera Duffy, and Jan, performed by baritone John Moore.
“I tried to milk the happy moments in the opera because there are so few of them,” Mazzoli said with a laugh.
She and Vavrek traveled to Scotland's Isle of Skye to record accents and slang and take in the scenery — jutting rock formations, soaring cliffs and, of course, breaking waves, close to rolling meadows with lambs.
“The juxtaposition of that was striking and very inspiring,” she said. “It struck me as a very loud landscape, even though it's a very quiet place.”
She included Scottish touches by emulating the sound of bagpipes through oboe and strings — although there are no actual bagpipes — and song-and-response singing characteristic of Scottish church music.
First musical interpretation
Von Trier, a leader of the Dogme 95 cinema movement that frowns on special effects, eschewed music in “Breaking the Waves” except in brief passages.
“There is no underscoring telling you how to feel,” Mazzoli said. “So there was this great opportunity to create a subtext through the music that illuminates the characters' psychology.”
Von Trier gave his blessing to the project but was not involved, giving space to Mazzoli and Vavrek.
Known for his fear of flying, the film director will not see the opera in the United States, although Mazzoli said — without revealing details — that talks are underway for further productions worldwide.
Even among the opera's creators, there were disagreements about what drives Jan, she says.
“What makes the story so strong — the ability to have many different interpretations,” she said.
“Whether you love it or hate it, everybody comes out of this opera and this film and is talking about it.”

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How Danish Oscar-nominated dark booze comedy was inspired by director’s tragic loss

‘Another Round’ (Danish title: ‘Druk’), a film about a pact by four world-weary Danish schoolteachers to spend every day drunk for a loosely scientific "experiment," was always going to walk a fine line between comedy and darkness.

How Danish Oscar-nominated dark booze comedy was inspired by director’s tragic loss
Director Thomas Vinterberg talking to press in Denmark. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

Director Thomas Vinterberg wrote his script, originally a play, upon realising many of the world’s great historic feats were made by people regularly intoxicated on alcohol — the very same substance that can rip lives and families apart.

But four days into shooting, Vinterberg’s daughter was killed in a car crash. He somehow still finished the uniquely funny, tender and tragic film — which has earned him a rare Oscar nomination for best director. 

“The movie was always meant to be life-affirming and full of love, and bare to some extent… raw,” Vinterberg told AFP in an interview via Zoom. 

“But the tragedy that happened in my life left all defenceless and open.”

Starring as the teachers are four of Vinterberg’s close friends and collaborators, including former 007 villain Mads Mikkelsen, who all spent the shoot doing “everything they could to make me laugh in these circumstances.”

“There was so much love on the set — and I guess you can see that on the screen,” said Vinterberg, whose movie is a favourite to take home the Oscar for best international film on Sunday.

While the film is clearly about alcohol, it is also “about living inspired, about forgetting about yourself, about being curious, and being in the moment and all that comes with drinking.”

Those life-affirming elements were inspired by his daughter Ida, who was due to play Mikkelsen’s daughter, and whose real-life friends play classmates who participate in a joyous teen drinking competition around a lake.

“There’s an alarming bunch of people and countries who connected to this thing about drinking,” joked Vinterberg.

“Yes, they drink differently in California — they put the bottle in a [paper] bag — whereas in Denmark, teenagers run around in the streets with bottles out,” he said.

“But it seems that the film connects on a different level, and hopefully we succeeded in elevating this film… to a movie about something more.”

Humour is not always associated with Vinterberg, co-founder of the ascetic Dogme 95 filmmaking movement with Lars Von Trier, and director of movies tackling issues such as child abuse including “The Celebration” and “The Hunt.” 

But Vinterberg, 51, has often defied categorization. The famous Dogme 95 “manifesto” imposing strict naturalistic limits on directors was always half serious, half tongue-in-cheek.

And while he has dabbled in Hollywood — for instance 2015’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” starring Carey Mulligan, also an Oscar nominee this year — his most widely acclaimed films are often his most Danish and local.

“It seems like when I dig in my own garden, that’s when people really get interested, also abroad,” he said.

The universal themes of “Another Round” may partly explain how Vinterberg landed one of just five Oscar best director nods, for a non-English-language film (fellow nominee Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is in Korean and English).

“The pleasures of alcohol, but also the destructive side of drinking, have been around for thousands of years, in all cultures almost,” said Vinterberg. 

The director served his cast booze during rehearsals, and they watched Russian YouTube videos together to observe episodes of extreme inebriation.

“We needed to see these characters being in the zone,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like they were very drunk, actually, but there was alcohol.”

On set, however, everyone was sober, Vinterberg said — “they had to act, basically, which I think they did well.”

Much as the production of “Another Round” is a story of contrasts — tragedy and camaraderie, humor and philosophy — the fates of the teachers diverge when the temptation of booze takes hold to varying degrees with each of them.

But the movie itself deliberately “did not want to moralize” or “make an advertisement for alcohol,” said Vinterberg.

“Very importantly, I did not want to have a message.”