Breaking the Waves (1996)

Marriage is a beautiful thing, that is until von Trier touches it.

A childlike, devoutly religious woman named Bess (Emily Watson) marries a foreign oil worker, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), who must leave for the barges not long after the wedding. Distraught, she prays that he comes home, and immediately afterward, he’s severely injured, almost completely paralyzed. Thinking it’s her fault, when he requests that she sleep with other men and describe it to him so they ‘can be together’, she takes on the task with tragic determination.

Writer/director Lars von Trier is a guy that I can’t really find myself loving but at least admiring for whatever the hell it is that he’s trying to do. Now, I can maybe move even closer to loving him like so many others already have.

von Trier films this in his grainy, handheld camera signature style which uses only actual light for each and every shot and also no score whatsoever which is always a win win for me. These little elements added in there are what made me really admire this flick because I didn’t feel like I was actually watching a film after awhile, I felt like I was watching a real if bizarre true story play out right in front of my eyes. von Trier also uses chapters for this flick and each one is accompanied by a classic rock song ranging from the likes of Elton John and Rod Stewart. It’s a very strange idea but it’s still an idea that works somehow, even if it is von Trier just messing around like the mad-man that he is.

Where this film really works is its story even though its insane. The whole synopsis may have you scratching your head, as all von Trier synopsis’ probably do, but after about the third chapter, it all starts to turn into a real heart-felt story that I actually started to follow. The film isn’t enjoyable to say the least but the little romance that these two have and how sweet and sort of innocent it actually is, works in the films favor and gets us ready for all of the dark and sad shit that takes over the last 2 hours of the flick. Still, once it does start, I still felt the same way I did before.

I like how von Trier combines all of these ideas with sex, faith, religion, sacrifice, and most of all, love into one film but it never feels too jam-packed with ideas nor does it ever feel like its focusing on one more than the other, they just somehow get focused on all at the same time. You see how this girl is treated because she may be a little weird, but once she gets this husband it’s almost too good to be true of how happy and in love she is. Once that starts to go away though, it’s even worse to see what happens to her and that’s when the film started to make me feel something for this character probably because von Trier cared for her as much as I did.

von Trier may exploit these characters beyond belief but he never loses sight that these characters are just about as real as you or I am and the way he handles just about every scene that builds up the emotional punch until it’s through the roof, is a true testament to von Trier’s writing/direction. We actually feel something for this character and every decision that she makes has another lasting impact not on how we feel about her, but us as well considering that the film never lets us lose sight of who we are dealing with here. She’s not a mean, cruel, or bad person she’s just a girl who’s doing something for her husband, no matter how twisted or effed up it may be. The film even brings up the whole point about what she is doing could be referred to as “good” and I can’t say that I am against that idea either.

Where my problem with this film was, lied in the fact that for every heart-breaking moment here had a nonsensical, bizarre, and strange moment just ready to follow it up, which is what I expected but since this story was so rich it almost feels like a rip-off in a way. von Trier shows too much of the controversial vision of love and faith that he has here and it starts to take away from the believability of things here and give us a firm belief of what we are watching. I know I sound kind of like a cheese ball considering I knew I was going to get a lot of this going into the film but it just seemed unreasonable for von Trier to put all of this crazy and wild sexual stuff in this flick even when it doesn’t really need it with the story that it has.

The real reason to watch this film though is for the performance of Emily Watson here who plays Bess McNeill. Bess is a very strange, weird, messed-up girl who also has a very vulnerable, loving, and playful side to her as well and even though at first it may seem very hard for us to actually get involved with her character, Watson makes this one of the best characters I have seen on the screen in awhile. Watson plays every emotion that goes through Bess perfectly with all of the crying, moping, anger, joy, and downright pure neediness and makes this somewhat schizophrenic character seem very believable in her portrait. A lot of the things Bess does here is pretty effed up but I still thought she was a nice and sweet girl despite all of the problems that she was going through. I think Watson definitely deserved this nomination that she got but I also think that she should have gotten the Oscar as well, even though I still need to see the other nominated performances from that year.

Stellan Skarsgård is also very good in an early role that shows him playing many different emotions as well and us never being too sure as to what really is going on in his mind at the time. Considering he is practically crippled throughout the whole flick, it takes a lot for Stellan to draw out some emotions and mystery within his character, which continues to work considering we never know what’s on his mind, if he is even in the right frame of mind, or if he wants to live or die. None of this is ever really made clear to us which I liked and I think that Stellan did a great job with this mysterious but also likable performance that he gives.

Consensus: Breaking the Waves has a problem with too many bizarre things occurring but it also benefits from a very good story that is weird but also very emotional, amazing performances from everyone involved, especially Watson herself, and a story as far-fetched as it may be, that still comes off as heart-breaking and true, even though it comes from the mind of Lars von trier.



  1. Nice review, Dan. Breaking the Waves is one of my favorite films of the ’90s. It’s final scene is as unexpectedly moving as anything I’ve ever seen.

    Can you believe this was Watson’s FIRST role? Crazy.

    • Thanks Alex! I liked this one a lot and I couldn’t believe that I was actually starting to feel emotions during this flick. I also can’t believe that this was her first because she’s so perfect.

  2. The classic rock that accompanies the chapter headings aren’t as strange as you might think. Von Trier isn’t just “messing around”. They act as a counterpoint to the ascetic life of the community. And, listen carefully during the prologue – when the elders ask Bess if the outsiders have brought anything of value with them, she answers, “They’re music.”

  3. BREAKING THE WAVES is one of those movies like “Requiem For A Dream” and “Dogville” that I’m glad I saw but that I don’t think I could sit through a second time. There are some movies that just strip your nerves raw and this is most definitely one of them. But it most certainly should be seen for Emily Watson’s performance. She’s got a lot of guts for taking on a role like this her first time at bat. How many of our American actresses who BMW about their not being enough significant roles for women would have taken on a role this demanding?

  4. One of the most hit-or-miss directors we have working today (though for me personally he’s usually very much ‘hit’), but an undeniably fascinating filmmaker. This is one of his I love; Watson’s performance is mesmerizing.

  5. Very solid review and I totally agree with you. Without the fantastic performances found in this film it would have come out quite a bit weaker and Lawrence and Tucci really made the film.

  6. Excellent review. I have been meaning to watch this film but haven’t got the chance. I will try and watch it after reading your interesting review.

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