Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is an astonishingly well-achieved and precise piece of cinema but it’s quite bleak in its outlook and a painful film to watch.

Breaking the Waves
Sydney Mancasola as Bess in Breaking the Waves. Photo © James Glossop

Of course, there’s compassion and beauty in it, but it’s pretty bitter about the power of its central character. For those reasons I was worried about directing an operatic version, but then I listened to the score. Missy. Mazzoli has brought an extraordinary compassion to it – her own compassion as an artist – which turns the film inside out.

The story is set in a remote community on an island where there is a kind of repressive, post-Calvinist religion. It’s a love story between Bess, a young woman who is protected by this society – she’s sort of loved by it but also controlled by it – and who falls in love with Jan, a man who’s an outsider and works on an oil rig. After he goes back to work, she suffers acute separation anxiety and hallucinates a destructive dialogue with the god of her religious mentors. When Jan is badly injured in an oil rig accident, Bess holds herself in some way responsible and therefore believes herself in some way responsible for his redemption. In his brain damaged state, Jan encourages her to sleep with other men, which becomes an almost psychopathic quest for Bess driven by her love, not only for him, but in a strange way for her community as well.

When I was asked to direct it, my first response was are you sure this shouldn’t be directed by a woman? I didn’t agree to it until I met with Missy and talked extensively with her. “I need to know whether you’re comfortable with your piece being directed by me, not just on the basis of my approach but also on the basis of my gender,” I said. I couldn’t have done it without her saying that felt right to her.

Missy has said that the orchestral music at the beginning was directly inspired by her experience of the landscape on Skye and other islands off the west coast of Scotland. Otherwise, there are arias in it where you would say “yes, that’s an aria,” and there are a series of quite extraordinary love duets between Bess and Jan. There are crashing ensembles between Bess and the chorus, but at other times the music is fleeting, as if you’re running through some sort of musical wood while the story travels from crisis to crisis. 

Initially there were long conversations with the designer Soutra Gilmour about where we wanted the story to be located. As we were working on it, we came to an understanding that this was a psychological piece and that a lot of the literal elements in the film have made their way into the psychology of the score. Rather than talking about an island or the sea or the church, we talked about “island-ness,” “sea-ness,” “church-ness,” things like that. Then, working with Will Duke, whose projections are a really integral part of the scenographic design, we developed that kind of thinking further. It’s not meant to replicate the inside of a house on the Isle of Skye or even a cliff, but all these things are suggested because the sense we got from the music was of seeing the whole world through Bess’s eyes and seeing it very emotionally.

Sydney Mancasola, who plays Bess, is a wonderful, wonderful actress who is able to hold the stage even when she’s not singing. Her track in the opera is very hard emotionally, partly because the staging requires her to see and sense everything that is written in the score. I couldn’t possibly have pursued this way of staging it without a singer who was that good an actress.

Obviously, I can’t promise an evening of delighted laughter, nor can I promise a sort of Sound of Music style emotional release – the opera is just not in that territory. But the score is full of energy, and hope, and light in opposition to suffering, and there’s a clarity in the musical characterisation of this woman that comes from the strange and inspiring gifts of a very unusual composer indeed.

Breaking the Waves is at the Adelaide Festival on March 13 and 15