Breaking the Waves – Lars Von Trier and the infinite sadness. (film review)

The key to Lars Von Triers amazing 1996 film Breaking the Waves lies in a conversation Bess (played to absolute perfection by Emily Watson) has with her husbands Doctor (played by Adrian Rawlins) when he discovers Bess is trying to solicit meaningless sex with other men to save her husband from dying. He wants to know why she thinks she can heal Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) and she patiently explains to the unbelieving Doctor that she had prayed to God to send her husband home from the oil rig and the next day he had an accident, became paralysed and was sent home. Rather than admonish Bess, or comfort her with words appealing to her sanity, he stares at her with incredulity and asks what makes her people think they are so powerful? It is this delusion,  this conceit that has Bess destroy herself  just as Theodore Dreyer’s Joan of Arc (a great influence on Von Trier) was able to depict deep female suffering through martyrdom thirty-eight years earlier.

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I have had Dancer in the Dark sitting on my shelf for some time. Someone who likes me very much gave it to me as a gift, and I confess I have yet to see it. Having (finally) seen Breaking the Waves, I can tell you I am now going to work my way through all the Von Trier films. I liked him a lot before – I loved Dogville when I saw it at the movies enough to buy the film. I was ambivalent toward Melancholia until I attended an evening philosophical seminar on the film, and (as always happens with me) more information fed my interest, rather than killed it. I enjoyed The Idiots – but until Breaking the Waves I thought he was just another good film maker. However, as I know it is true for so many others, Breaking the Waves shocked me into a reverence and respect for Von Trier that I know I won’t lose now. I don’t know anything about him as a man, but as a film maker, and film writer, I think there is some real genius in his work.  (I know, I know – the G word) For those of you unfamiliar with the premise (and I just KNOW you are going to remedy this and see the film asap) I will give you the basic wiki plot line (because it doesn’t really contain any spoilers):

Breaking the Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill, a pretty young Scottish woman with a history of psychological problems. She marries Norwegian oil rig worker Jan, despite the apprehensions of her community and Calvinist church. Bess is somewhat simple and childlike in her beliefs. During her regular visits to the church, she prays to God and believes God answers through her using her voice.

Bess has difficulty living without Jan when he is away on the oil platform. Jan makes occasional phone calls to Bess in which they express their love and sexual desires. Bess grows impatient and prays for his immediate return. The next day, Jan is paralysed from an industrial accident and is flown back to the mainland. Bess believes her prayer was the reason the accident occurred.

No longer able to perform sexually and mentally affected by the paralysis, Jan asks Bess to find a lover. Bess is devastated and storms out. Jan then attempts to commit suicide and fails. He falls unconscious and is readmitted to hospital.

Jan’s condition deteriorates and he urges Bess to find and have sex with other men and tell him the details as it will be as if they are together and will keep him alive. Bess begins to believe these actions are the will of God and in accordance with loving Jan.

Despite her unwillingness and inner turmoil to be with other men, she perseveres as she believes it is keeping Jan alive.


Despite the extreme nature of Bess’ devotion to her husband and his strange requests, Von Trier has tapped into something akin to the female experience of devotion as a result of religious hysteria. Part of what makes Bess act is what (possibly) keeps a battered woman in her home. I remember reading the testimony of a woman who was repeatedly abused by her husband saying she didn’t want to leave because she was sure he would start on the dog. This woman was debasing herself for the love of her dog – and no doubt her husband who she refused to lose faith in. Von Trier is right to connect this to religious fever  and, in an odd way, to power; Doctor Richardson is right to question Bess’ allusions to power. It is because a woman feels so powerful – in a transcendent  religious passion – that she will allow great harm to come upon her in the name of something greater than herself.


Of course this is not a specifically female problem – a hero is often putting himself through great physical pain in order to achieve whatever goal he is working toward. The greatest example of this is Christ, the ultimate sacrificial lamb and the example to all good Christians who follow ever after. But Breaking the Waves is about a specific female style of this problem, and central to its issue is Bess’ being cast out of the Church she loves more than anything (except God and her husband). The very frightening and sobering thing about Bess’ sacrifice is its contemporary setting. I know – from personal experience, and observing the world around me – women will display this sort of devotion even today. Lars Von Trier wants to call all of this into question.


The voices of reason in Breaking the Waves are from two outsiders – Dodo (played by the wonderful wonderful Katrin Cartlidge, devastatingly taken from the world way too soon) and Doctor Richardson who, despite being a man of science makes all the wrong moves (rather typical of men of science in Von Trier films). It is only those outside the Church who can see what damage the Church is causing.  The women inside the church are equally as pious as Bess’, using their judgement as another form of control / power. When you believe a person has brought damnation upon themselves, you ensure your own regulated behaviours will prevent your experience of the same fate. However, the voice of destruction comes from outside also in the form of Jan. It is interesting that if Bess had not married outside her Church she certainly would never have suffered her fate. However, neither would she have experienced the very highs and the deepest lows of love, living a life so filled with passion that nothing else can exist.


The brilliance of this film and surely its most shocking, devastating moment, is our witness of Jan’s healing. I wont go to far into it, for the sake of spoilers, but when Bess’ sacrifice has the effect she wants, it does give her an aura of a perverse sort of power. Of course the two events are unrelated, but not in the eyes of Bess they are not. And Lars Von Trier leaves this question with us anyway. Bess has good evidence of the power of her word and her actions and she will therefore not take them lightly. But it is their heaviness that will eventually crush her.  Surely this is true of so many religious passions.


The last thing I want to say about Breaking the Waves (before you all rush out and watch it) is speaking a little about my envy.  The love Bess feels is only available to the religious woman, because no human creature deserves love like this. Only if you love God and love on behalf of God can you give absolutely everything else up and love with the kind of passion that has you scream at the sea. I will never love like this again (I have once in my life when I was a church girl).  I’ve learnt too much, I’ve come too far, I love my work and my self far to much to allow total immersion like Bess. But what she experienced through her ability to love, the pain and the joy and the intensity of feeling I am very envious of. She is the embodiment of extreme feeling.  When everything is meaningless and one has to forge a path of existence, her free fall into love is something I wish I could still claim.