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Breaking the Waves (1996) is a movie that broke the rules, exploding so many norms of mainstream cinema that its very existence—not to mention its vast popularity and critical acclaim—seems almost as astonishing as the miracle that gives the story its visionary ending. On one level, Lars von Trier’s masterpiece is a story of amour fou between a man and a woman whose blazing passion puts them instantly at odds with her puritanical community. It’s also a blistering critique of the repression and denial that faith-based moralizers confuse with principles and decency—and a penetrating exploration of the meaning of goodness in the modern world.
Above all, though, it’s a thrilling, utterly unpredictable suspense story that propelled von Trier to global recognition as one of the most adventurous writer-directors on the contemporary scene, and easily the most gifted one to come from Scandinavia since Ingmar Bergman emerged in the 1940s. Von Trier had already made an impressive mark with a trilogy of dystopian thrillers—The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987), and the mesmerizing Europa (1991)—and the first four chapters of his darkly humorous medical epic The Kingdom (1994) had moved from Danish television to cult acclaim in American theaters. Always ready and willing to reinvent himself, he then turned in a bold new direction, joining his fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg to launch the Dogme 95 movement, which holds that the essential cinematic values of storytelling and acting should not be compromised by visual effects, technical refinements, or directorial flourishes.
Breaking the Waves was von Trier’s first theatrical film after the Dogme manifesto was unveiled in March 1995, and, ironically, it contains too many exceptions to the Dogme “Vow of Chastity”—studio sets, post-dubbed music, computer graphics, and so on—to qualify for certification. Yet it conveys the sense of vital immersion in reality that the movement called for, capturing the feel of authentic human existence even during its transcendent finale, and anticipating von Trier’s next theatrical picture, The Idiots (1998), his only official Dogme film. Bearing out the spirit if not the letter of the Dogme credo, Breaking the Waves shows that von Trier is too ornery an artist to be bound even by his own rules.
Breaking the Waves also made international stars out of Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, who bring off incredibly demanding roles that could easily have drowned less dazzling talents. Like such stylistic trailblazers as John Cassavetes and the French New Wave directors, von Trier put the creativity and integrity of the performances at the dead center of the production, freeing the actors to improvise and expand on his screenplay, which he regarded as a mere blueprint or outline for the picture. The superb cinematographer Robby Müller lit broad areas of space to facilitate freedom of movement on every location and set, and shot the action with handheld Super 35 mm cameras, lending rare visual dynamism to the CinemaScope screen.
Breaking the Waves is not an exercise in style, though. It’s a journey into the human heart, so the story and characters are what matter most. Watson plays Bess McNeill, an innocent young woman who lives on an island off Scotland’s northern coast, where the inhospitable climate and landscape are matched by the stony joylessness of the inhabitants. Their chief gathering place is an austere little church where only men are allowed to speak and the pastor has few skills beyond denouncing sinners from the pulpit and presiding over funerals where the souls of erring women are consigned to hell as their coffins are lowered into the grave. The film begins with a close-up of Bess answering questions from the church elders about her impending marriage to Jan, an outsider who works on an offshore oil rig. “I do not know him,” the minister says, instantly suspicious of an unfamiliar name—and we notice that the scene never shows Bess and the churchmen together on the screen. The showdown that propels the entire story—with Bess and Jan on one side and virtually everyone else on the other (save for Bess’s sympathetic sister-in-law, played by Katrin Cartlidge, and Dr. Richardson, played by Adrian Rawlins)—is set on a hair trigger from the very first shots.
Skarsgård plays Jan Nyman, a virile yet gentle man who loves Bess despite—or because of—her unsophisticated ways and slightly simple mind. The early days of their marriage are full of intimacy and happiness, as Bess discovers the delights of sex and Jan finds hidden depths in her outwardly childish personality. Gradually, we realize that Bess also has a dark side, instilled by the church’s dreary rigidity. At times of need, she has conversations with a God who seems wholly real and present to her, full of the strictness and rebuke that her cheerless elders—including her mother (Sandra Voe), who sides with the church against her daughter—have filled her head with all her life.
Bess turns to God more ardently than ever when Jan goes back to work on the oil rig, praying that he’ll come back quickly and never leave again. But her entreaties are not just unheard, they’re turned into a cruel travesty when an accident leaves Jan permanently paralyzed from neck to toes. Could this horrific event be the response of a mocking, malicious God to Bess’s prayers for her husband’s speedy return? If so, the deity she has internalized is as callous and uncaring as the petty patriarchs who run the local church, and we shudder to think how this will affect her naive trust in family, community, and divine providence itself. Von Trier now ratchets up the tension by having Jan place a startling, even shocking responsibility on his traumatized wife. He implores her to find another man, have sex with him, and describe it to him back at the hospital. Driven by her fervent love for him, she decides she must do absolutely anything he wants or needs, and so she becomes a sort of apathetic hooker in a grim parody of the genuine love life she and Jan once enjoyed.
What in the world motivates Jan to demand such repugnant actions from the wife he adores? This puzzle lends urgency and poignancy to the film’s second half, and von Trier resists the temptation to spell out the answer too obviously. It’s possible that an imp of the perverse now possesses Jan, instilling him with dark fantasies he’s compelled to gratify at Bess’s expense. But the deeper, truer reason is rooted in the fundamental theme of this richly philosophical romance, which was inspired by von Trier’s wish to make a film in which no one is “bad,” everyone is “good,” and when trouble flares anyway, it’s because incompatible concepts of “good” can violently conflict with one another.
Commenting on Breaking the Waves before its release, von Trier pointed out that Bess is an uncomplicated soul who lives mostly in her imagination, deriving strength from her capacity for love and her intuitive belief that nothing apart from good can actually exist. Things are very different for Jan, who lives in reality and believes that good arises only when people bring it about by doing good in the world. This is why he marries the vulnerable, simpleminded Bess despite the holier-than-thou hostility of her community and church; it’s why he devotes himself to her happiness; and when he realizes that his paralysis has cut off the bodily pleasures of their marriage, it’s why he puts her into the arms of other men, feeling that whatever happens physically, her loyalty and steadfastness will keep her spiritually true to him.
In the end, of course, “bad” does exist in our fallen world, and late in Breaking the Waves it takes two malevolent forms. One is the increasing debility of Jan’s mind, damaged by injury, further stressed by surgery, and fogged by medications and sedatives. The other force of evil takes human form: a sadistic sailor (Udo Kier) on a dilapidated ship that Bess visits on the lookout for sex. Her first encounter with him is so terrifying that she flees for her life; her second is a deliberate choice, meant to punish herself. Played with disturbing power by Kier, a scoundrel specialist who was already a veteran of von Trier films, the sailor is among the most sinister figures in all cinema. He erases the last vestiges of Bess’s physical and spiritual equilibrium, providing the film’s one instance of completely unambiguous badness.
Breaking the Waves was the first film in von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy, named after a book he read as a child about a little girl in the woods who gives away everything she has to those with needs greater than her own. This story has religious implications, and von Trier has said that religion, for him, is a quest for the missing naïveté and idealism of childhood. All three Golden Heart movies focus on women who make sacrifices for others while looking for greater meaning in their own lives. Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) in The Idiots becomes the most committed member of a group that plays at mental retardation as a means of subverting social norms, and the Czech immigrant Selma (Björk) in Dancer in the Dark (2000) comes to America, devotes herself to saving her son from a hereditary disease, and meets a tragic death. Of these women, Bess is the most finely drawn, three-dimensional character, and Breaking the Waves is the trilogy’s most perfectly balanced film, poised between the Dogme 95 simplicity of The Idiots and the flamboyant spectacle of Dancer in the Dark, which features musical numbers shot with more than a hundred digital cameras at a time. Breaking the Waves also paved the way for von Trier’s audacious experiments in Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), which he shot on unadorned soundstages, with different locations indicated by lighting and chalk marks; although in some ways they’re very different from Breaking the Waves, they, too, celebrate acting and narrative as the bedrock of cinema.
The epilogue of Breaking the Waves is impossible to describe—it must literally be seen to be believed—but it grows organically and coherently from everything that’s come before it, bringing the film to a bold and brilliant conclusion. First, it returns to the story’s main philosophical concern, presenting an inquest where the kindly Dr. Richardson is required to state his professional view of the psychological condition that led Bess to her doom. Earlier, he admits, he saw her as immature, unstable, obsessive, even psychotic. But in hindsight, his verdict is very different. “If you were to ask me again to write the conclusion,” he says, “then I might use a word like good.” That is clearly von Trier’s diagnosis as well, and after witnessing her story, we are likely to share it.
A little later, the epilogue recalls a seemingly minor detail in the story—the fact that the village church has no bells to ring, even for weddings or other festive occasions. Von Trier doesn’t remind us of this directly or give some commonsense explanation for it. Instead he subtly alludes to it, and then audaciously juxtaposes this picayune mystery with a grand, majestic mystery, ending the film with a magical vision that elevates the final moments to radically metaphysical heights. The vision isn’t entirely unprecedented—reminiscences of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 Nostalghia are surely deliberate on von Trier’s part—but it’s unsurpassed for sheer visual magnificence.
In a nod to the nineteenth-century novel, which it resembles in its narrative sweep and psychological detail, Breaking the Waves is divided into chapters, each of which begins with a burst of vintage 1970s pop music (courtesy of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, and others) and a tableau that introduces the prevailing mood and atmosphere of the scenes we’re about to see. Unlike the seven earlier chapters, the epilogue has two tableaux, one at the beginning and a second one—the most exalted and astounding of them all—at the end. Since the final tableau is the last shot of the movie, it initially seems more like a farewell than an introduction to something. Actually, however, it is very much a portent of the future—it’s a foretaste of what comes after the film, after we’ve watched Breaking the Waves for the first or fifth or umpteenth time. And what comes after the movie is the rest of our own lives.
David Sterritt is chair of the National Society of Film Critics, a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, chief book critic of Film Quarterly, and incoming editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His most recent books are Spike Lee’s America and The Beats: A Very Short Introduction.