Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)

Bess McNeill, a young Scottish woman, has just married the love of her life, an oil rig worker named Jan Nyman. Her choice has been met with disapproval from her community owing to the fact that Jan is an atheist. Bess is a pure-hearted woman who is steadfast in her beliefs. She also has a darker side to her, being childlike and naïve while having a history of psychological problems. She frequently attempts to speak with God, and answers her own prayers. She believes that He responds directly through her. She also experiences high amounts of anxiety when he is separated from Jan. One day, she prays to God to send Jan home, though she may not be happy with how her wish comes to pass.

In 1995, two Danish film directors, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg created what they dubbed the “Dogme 95 Manifesto”. During the eighties, power within the film industry gradually shifted from directors to the studios. There were many factors behind this change from directors taking more risks with gigantic budgets that even ideal box office performances couldn’t recoup to audience attendance plummeting between 1965 and 1969. Even throughout the seventies during the age of New Hollywood, weekly attendance never fully recovered. With studio-controlled blockbusters being the new rule, the Dogme 95 movement was an attempt to give power back to the directors themselves and sell films on stories rather than special effects. The manifesto even came with its own Vow of Chastity.

In practice, not many films have been identified as true Dogme 95 products, for the draconian guidelines were difficult to follow. The last one in particular was a gigantic stumbling block, because it would necessitate the director having to find a day job while shooting. Somewhat ironically, Lars von Trier disregarded many of these rules as he made Breaking the Waves, for it features dubbed music, built sets, and small amounts of computer-generated imagery.

Here we see him blatantly violating the tenth rule – on the title screen, no less.

It was, however, shot using handheld Super35mm cameras. This becomes apparent as soon as the film begins when a majority of the scenes are not still – as though we’re seeing the events unfold from the perspective of an invisible observer.

Breaking the Waves is also the first of Mr. von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy. It was named after a children’s book he read. In it, a little girl lost in a forest gives away everything she has for the benefit of others. Inspired by this tale, he wanted to make something that could be considered a religious film without miracles. According to him, it took five years to write the film and receive financial backing, eventually working with a 42-million kroner budget (roughly $7.5 million USD at the time).

This film debuted for the first time at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix. It also won the César Award for Best Foreign Film along with three more accolades at the 1996 European Film Awards, including Film of the Year. Breaking the Waves was especially admired by critic Roger Ebert and director Martin Scorsese – both of whom named it one of the ten best films of the nineties. It was also the film that launched the career of Emily Watson. Suddenly, the formally unknown actress found herself nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Award ceremony.

One of the first things I noticed when I watched this film was its grainy quality that seemed to resemble television static. Though slightly distracting at first, I can respect why Mr. von Trier decided to shoot his film that way. Keeping true to the spirit of the Dogme 95 ethos, he wanted to prioritize the performance of his actors over everything else. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters how the film looked because Emily Watson’s performance as Bess is quite laudable – it was undoubtedly deserving of that “Best Actress” nomination. She manages to successfully portray Bess as a sweet, if highly troubled woman. It’s particularly interesting when she begins speaking in God’s voice, convincingly carrying a conversion by herself.  You’ll feel for her when she has fallen into despair and appreciate every minor triumph over the adversity she faces. Whether she’s consulting God or opening the door to the helicopter transporting Jan to the oil rig, you get a sense of how important he is to her.

The biggest turning point occurs after Bess is told that Jan will come back in ten days. Being completely unable to wait that long, she prays to God to send him home earlier. Through her, He asks if that is truly what she wants, to which she confirms her desire. As if she managed to influence fate itself, Jan is critically injured on the oil rig. To Bess’s horror, he has been paralyzed from the waist down with only the bare minimum of control over his arms.

As his condition deteriorates, Jan encourages Bess to find another lover and tell him the details. He believes that doing so would revitalize his spirits. Despite her sister-in-law, Dodo, reassuring her that nothing Bess does will improve his condition. She attempts to sleep with the doctor, though she is ultimately rebuffed. Undeterred, she takes to picking men off the street. These sexual encounters become increasingly cruel, culminating in her having to fight off two men who attempt to rape her.

Breaking the Waves has a very interesting stance when it comes to religion. The church Bess attends adheres to a strict dogma that forbids women from even speaking within the walls. They also have no qualms condemning who they believe to be a sinful person to Hell at their funeral regardless of the goodwill they may have built up in life and excommunicate Bess once they learn of her sexual encounters. Even the fact that the churches lack bells, which are almost universally considered to produce a pleasant sound, seem to emphasize just how unwilling these fundamentalists are to make exceptions to their rules and, in Bess’s case, understand the circumstances surrounding her strange behavior.

At the same time, God and religion in general aren’t portrayed as evil either. If we are to believe God caused the accident that crippled Jan, then He only did so after Jess prayed to make it happen, thus bringing to mind the classic adage “Be careful what you wish for”. He ostensibly did this to put their relationship to the test, and Bess ends up going through Hell in what she believes will cure Jan’s deteriorating condition.

The final act is very memorable. Once Dodo and Jan’s doctor feel that the best course of action is to commit Bess, she decides to make the ultimate sacrifice. She goes to a derelict ship full of barbarous sailors who proceed to gang rape and attack her. The doctors try to save her life, but her heart stops and the doctors are unable to revive her. Her church, keeping true to their dogmatic views, refuses to hold a funeral for her, damning her soul to Hell. However, her sacrifice was not in vain. Jan astounds everyone when he revives from the brink of death and is able to walk once more. He and his friends remove Bess’s body from the casket and give her a burial at sea. As he is grieving, his friends excitedly call for him. When they examine the ship’s sonar, it fails to detect the body they just buried. As they arrive outside, church bells in the sky ring out majestically. Despite the fundamentalists’ intentions, Bess has ascended into heaven.

This sequence is what allows Breaking the Waves to stand out from other arthouse films. I find that many artistically driven directors who include developments like this make one of two mistakes. They would either confuse audiences by not giving them a solid foundation on which they could begin formulating theories or painstakingly explain absolutely everything – whether it’s in the film itself or in interviews after the fact. Mr. von Trier doesn’t fall into either trap for Breaking the Waves; this surreal moment objectively happens, for it is commented on by several characters, and the audience is allowed to draw their own conclusions. Was Jan’s recovery a divine miracle? Did Bess have something to do with it? Was God speaking through her? Mr. von Trier doesn’t provide a clear answer to any of these driving questions, and it’s a strong effort for it. Even if the pacing was a little slow at times, I can safely say the payoff was incredible.

As the years went on, Lars von Trier became an increasingly polarizing figure amongst cinephiles. Fans insisted he was an underrated genius while detractors believed him to be a pretentious, misanthropic hack with no social filter. I choose to mention this now because I could recommend Breaking the Waves to someone who would normally be put off by his behavior or output. For that matter, I could recommend it to someone who doesn’t usually enjoy arthouse films because it would be a great starting point. The film isn’t afraid to be transgressive about its subject matter, yet it’s ultimately tactful about how it goes about saying what it wants to say, knowing when to give its characters and the audience a break. I feel this is reflected in how each of the film’s chapters begin with a classic seventies rock song. The selection includes David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Being an unabashed arthouse film, this collection of songs wound up being a great way to make the challenging content more personable.

That’s not to imply Breaking the Waves is a good arthouse film because Mr. von Trier dumbed down his content to the lowest common denominator, however. Instead, I feel it’s good because it has an actual heart to it. There are bad people in this film, yet I got the impression that they’re outliers rather than what the author believes is an example of standard human behavior. Moreover, the themes are erudite and complex, yet they are presented in a way that expects its audience to keep up rather than talking down to them. Every major development is allowed to speak for itself, and its indulgences in magic realism ironically make the content easier to identify with. Though its cast is a little rough around the edges, they are equal parts likable and charismatic, and you will find yourself rooting for them every step of the way.

Final Score: 7/10

7 thoughts on “Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)

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