Breaking the Waves (1995)


Denmark; Lars von Trier

Mature Audience – Strong Sexuality; Nudity; Brief Violence

Set in the 70s in an ultra-religious Scottish community, Breaking the Waves charts the destructive love of a naïve young woman, Bess (Emily Watson), for a rough yet caring oil rig worker, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård). She discovers with her new husband the joys of sensual love, but also the unsuspected powers of her body. For a while, the couple enjoys peaceful wedded bliss, but soon Jan has to go back to work in the Northern Sea, leaving Bess devastated, in a state of almost unbearable impatience that borders panic. Bess’ mental instability surfaces again as she longs for Jan’s return, much to her relatives and best friend’ s worry. On the oil rig, Jan suffers a serious accident. From that moment on, Bess’s emotional distress turns into a mortificating obsession: she becomes convinced that she can save Jan by seducing and sleeping with other men, as a form of punishment for her sins.

Trier’s world is a cruel, harsh world whose implacable logic is governed by a merciless and iron-fisted deity, which often requires exorbitant proofs of faith. Both Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark were tragic tales of shattered lives and paroxysmal sacrifices. If there’s one thing we learned from them, it is that loves always come at a price. And yet few directors film their characters with such empathy and tender love, capturing with a devastating intensity the drama of simple, humane characters.

Bess is decided to pay the price of love, but she definitely cannot afford it. Weakened by the death of her brother, she is unstable and passionate, adoringly throwing herself at Jan. The beginning of their idyll is left out, because it never matters. Once Jan has earned her love, he virtually earned her. The girl is tender, sweet and inexperienced. This is not how one wins a battle…

Yet Jan has seen in Bess an irrepressible force: “She’s stronger than you and me” he says. Indeed, it is with an uncanny determination and practically supernatural strength that she will not only beat her appalled friends, but also her unyielding orthodox community and, ultimately, God himself – who seemed bent on finishing Jan , but instead has to accept Bess’ own desperate sacrifice.

Emily Watson embodies with grace this force of nature, becoming herself the driving force in the film. By turn harrowing and sweet, she delivers the touch of beauty and humor needed to prevent the ensemble from spilling into the unspeakable.

Tough eloquent, touching and often of a heightened sensibility, Breaking the Waves is far from flawless. Trier struggles to maintain momentum. There are times when he finds refuge into anti-psychology and opacity, as if the mask certain failures of the film’s internal logic. But if, formally, Breaking the Waves has neither the elegance and originality of other Lars von Trier’s masterpieces, this “simple love story”, as the writer/director described it, remains an intriguing and wrenching work of art. 

Breaking the waves    

Breaking the waves watson 1

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