Bess McNeill is a good Scottish girl marrying an outsider in her community, Jan. He works the oil rigs, and after their wedding which is as beautiful for Jan as it is for Bess, her husband goes off to work. Bess is raised in a religious community that seems centuries away from our time. Women are not allowed to speak aloud in church, cannot attend funerals, and must obey their husbands and the Lord. Bess spends much of her time talking to God, asking for favors, and she answers herself in God’s words. I found these moments a bit awkward and very unoriginal, but this has to be accepted as part of Bess’ character. Is she really hearing the voice of God? Well, yes. As long as Bess believes, she does hear. God promises to send her husband home early, and Jan is in a terrible accident when renders him paralyzed.
I was not as absorbed into Breaking the Waves as I have been with other of von Trier’s films. The big problem is that the opening scenes or chapters are much too long. They linger, and while as episodes they are not bad, the plot as I’ve described isn’t really what the film ultimately becomes. About one hour into the film Jan, now a quadriplegic, asks his loving, devoted wife to sleep with other men. He himself cannot experience love and if only Bess could tell her about her sexual encounters Jan will feel close to her again. This is very interesting, at first naughty and in a dark way kinky. But Bess is not all together. She struggles with pleasing her husband, torn between his words and the word of her religion. She asks God and he replies through her she must obey her husband.
She attempts to sleep with her husband’s doctor, a decent and very handsome man, but Bess cannot command her sexuality with intimacy. She is on a bus, makes eye contact with a dirty old man, and masturbates him. She tells Jan about it and he seems to get better. Bess starts to believe in her ability to save her husband.
Von Trier is always asking profound questions, but with Breaking the Waves he is asking more about human beings than God. Except for the ending, which I will admit to finding farfetched, this is not a religious film. It is a film about faith; as all good religious films are—they do not presume too much—and it questions what most believe about God. What is sin? Can one be a sinner and still be loved by Him? As God points out through Bess, Mary Magdalene is one of His most beloved creatures. It is the harsh faith of the village elders, who have the power to banish people from the community, who decide what sin is. In a way, the film questions whose faith is stronger. Bess, a simple minded girl, the first heroine in von Trier’s trilogy of naïve and brutalized women, is like a loyal dog. She does not matter; only the health and life of her husband counts. The others with this stone and wood building and their bible do not understand what Bess has turned to, and for that they banish her.
Her family cannot understand her either. Her mother is the first to warn her about banishment. Her grandfather, a village elder, is non-vocal but his glances and presence impose much. It is Bess’ sister-in-law, Dodo, who both knows what Bess is doing and why she is doing it. They are best friends, have been since Dodo’s wedding to Bess’ brother, but his death brought them even closer. Dodo cannot believe in Bess’ reasons for sleeping with other men. She is concerned for Bess’ mental health and also for the sick control Jan is having over her. She is a nurse, is treating Jan, and knows what the drugs and constant surgery is doing to his mind. For Bess it doesn’t matter; as long as Jan’s condition improves, she will continue to be promiscuous.
Von Trier always gets great performances from his actors. Emily Watson is probably the most substantial she has ever been on screen. She has a pixy-like sweetness that really makes Bess a 3-dimensional character when she could have easily been a cartoon. It’s surprising to discover that this was her first film. She is intense, too, and very brave. Often in this director’s movies actresses have to do things ordinary actresses would never be expected of, typically scenes of sexual explicitness, especially when portrayed so honestly. It is however not the explicitness that makes these performances brilliant but the intensity and commitment by these actresses. After all they agreed on the roles. It makes me hopeful for Kristen Dunst’s upcoming turn in von Trier’s Melancholia.
Breaking the Waves seems so alien to most modern people: firstly the idea that the church can play such a significant role in life, and secondly because of the cruelty of being someone of faith. Though Bess accepts her duty with relative ease, what Jan or God or she herself asks of her is too cruel. The northern Scottish environment, the lack of technology—the reliance on public phone booths, for example, to receive a call—is so backwards. So is the idea that a person can be banished from society for actions that others disprove of. In their eyes Bess is a prostitute. She dresses like one to attract men, but I never viewed her actions as perverted. Bizarre, yes, but perhaps because I have walked with her I could understand. The coldness with which friends and family, in the sake of tradition, greet each other is equally bizarre. I was wondering if von Trier might have been exaggerating his story to be more effective. That could be true, but then I remembered that in the Amish community one could be thusly banished, so this extremely religious mentality does exist today. Most of us, including myself, simply do not experience it.
It’s hard to say whether I liked the picture. If I had to be honest I would say I didn’t think it was a masterpiece as many have said. It is in parts too long and boring. Some of the actions and thoughts the characters have make little sense. Let me rephrase that—they come out of nowhere. When the Doctor steps in to talk Bess out of her delusion, he confesses his love. He speaks and reacts to her indifference the way a lover would, so this “love” isn’t just plutonic, it’s more sensual. They had only a few scenes prior, and nothing hinted at the Doctor’s feelings. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. You should see this film if it sounds interesting to you, and my opinions and observations aside, I think I’ve done a fair job explaining the extensive setup of the story. It is interesting and worth sitting through to the end. Those who are religiously inclined might find more topical or at least theological discussions to engage in with the film, but as a movie it is far from perfect. But von Trier’s films are never perfect. He is more instinctual, and his films are crude but powerful works of art and his audacity is enough to check out every one of his films at least once.
A final note, two versions of the film exist: an American version and the European version. It’s obvious which is “censored” and you should seek out the European version. I cannot describe all the differences except for one, based on a screenshot comparison I found online: during their wedding night, Jan lets Bess explore his body. Von Trier’s camera lingers on a shot showing actor Stellan Skarsgård’s penis. In the American version, his hand cups his privates. If seeing Skarsgård’s junk isn’t your thing, consider this: the character’s hand covering his genitals tells the audience they’re watching a movie. The image takes us out of the experience, and this is a film where every single image needs to be experienced the way its director intended.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier, Peter Asmussen and David Pirie
Stars: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard and Katrin Cartlidge
Runtime: 159 minutes