Wednesday, September 4, 2013

906. Breaking the Waves (1996)

Running Time: 159 minutes
Directed By: Lars von Trier
Written By: Lars von Trier, Peter Asmussen
Main Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr, Adrian Rawlins
Click here to view the trailer


I've been waiting to watch "Breaking the Waves" for a long time now. While not always fully enjoying his films, I've always been semi fascinated by the films of Lars von Trier. They almost always offer something to marvel over, SOMETHING that's unique; unlike any other filmmaker. "Breaking the Waves" is no exception.

The film's star is Emily Watson who plays Bess, a mentally handicapped woman with a history of psychological problems and a childlike approach to the ways of the world. The film is split into seven chapters. In Chapter One Bess marries Jan (Skarsgard), a Swede who loves and cares for Bess very much. The wedding is held in a church with no bells and the guests have a good time; dancing and drinking. In Chapter Two we examine the married life of Bess and Jan, as they explore one another's bodies through the art of love making. Up until her marriage, Bess was a virgin and during one occasion, as she makes love to Jan, she looks to the heavens and audibly thanks God for the love he has given her. However, Jan works on an oil rig and must leave Bess for a while. Chapter Three examines the two as they cope with life without each other. Jan gets by okay. He misses Bess, but he can handle it. Bess, on the other hand, can't really seem to handle life without Jan and prays to God that he be delivered home. It is right after this that Jan is the victim of an accident on the rig and ends up in the hospital, paralyzed. Bess believes the injury to be her fault, since she prayed for Jan's immediate return. Chapter Four covers life with Jan's illness and his asking Bess to do him a favor. It seems that Jan can't cope with the idea of never being able to make love to Bess again, so he asks her to find a lover and then come back and describe to him all the details. He promises that it will be his way of making love to her and that it will keep him alive. Bess, in all her naivety, believes Jan and wants him to survive, so she obliges him. I'll stop there, so as not to give away too much.


I think the first thing that really struck me about the film was the natural way in which it was shot. It was a film from the Dogme 95 movement, or at least it looked like one, without actually being one. The use of various popular songs, including a couple of Elton John tunes and Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (a personal favorite of mine and a song that went REALLY well with this film), disqualifies it from truly being considered a Dogme 95 film, not to mention the use of a few computer enhancements. Otherwise, von Trier DID implement handheld cameras throughout the entire production and used only natural lighting to make a picture that felt very real and really hit you in your emotional core. That's not even mentioning the absolutely intense performances from everyone involved, but especially Emily Watson. The story totally worked for me too and unlike "Dancer in the Dark" (a sort of companion piece to "Breaking the Waves" with both being part of the Golden Heart trilogy) it wasn't a musical and didn't star Bjork - two for the plus column.

I will say though that there were a few things I didn't care for. For starters, the film was a bit on the long side and I think if it could have been contained just a little bit, it would've done wonders for the flow. As it was, it did lag just a little bit, in places. I'd always read that von Trier was an admitted atheist, yet here he seems to be questioning his own lack of faith, wondering if perhaps there is a God. However, what is von Trier really saying with this picture. The one in the film who really hinges all of her beliefs and decisions on God and spirituality is also the one who isn't all there mentally. There seems to be a smattering of religion vs. science elements too, or rather, faith vs. medicine. Also, the ending (with the bells) also doesn't come off as something directed by a full fledged atheist, but rather someone who doesn't believe but wants to. Or perhaps von Trier is just a movie maker and needed a happy ending and since it's only the movies, in his strict non belief, it was okay to "pretend". I don't know...

The film is one that can surely be put under a microscope, as themes, ideas and debates are siphoned out of the film and put up for discussion. I dug it for the story, the acting and the look/feel, but there was an essays worth of discussions in there that will surely rise to the surface upon further viewings. For now, lets just call it a win and a great time at the movies.

RATING: 8/10  I feel like I really rambled a lot there. Ah well. I really can't wait to see more von Trier, such as "Melancholia" and give "Antichrist" another look. For the curious, my all-time favorite von Trier picture was excluded from THE BOOK and that's "Dogville".


September 4, 2013  1:46am


  1. Good morning Andrew..
    A lot of points to strongly agree with you on this
    -Much better than 'Dancer in the Dark', which may have a lot to do with it not being a musical. I thought that, as an actress, Bjork was OK in that..but I'm wandering off point.
    -'Dogville' knocks both of them into a corner-, and is decidedly missing from THE BOOK.*
    Too long, but..
    - Lots of aspects to discuss, ponder, pick over. In other words, a film with depth.

    You know, so thanks for pointing it out, I'd missed the bit that her wedding was missing bells.. So that makes the 'heavenly bells' at the end more significant.

    I was also unaware that Trier is an avowed Atheist. Makes the film even more interesting, as I found the religious/faith aspect at the end .. not to my taste. It felt like something from a 1940's (with Jimmy Stewart in it, probably directed by Frank Capra) film where God emerged from the clouds to make everything OK and give a rather sickly sweet Hollywood ending. So your ponderings are interesting.
    So, all in all, an interesting film. I'd go up to about 7 personally.. 8 with a different ending!

    *May I go off topic and say I'm delighted you liked Dogville. I thought it was fantastic. The 'stage set' concept somehow worked. The film went down very well in Europe, but we gathered it was not well received in American as it was somehow perceived as being an anti-American film. I didn't see it as such. Presumably you didn't either (or perhaps agreed with whatever aspect of American life/society/ culture it was - allegedly- critisising). Do you know - from people who disliked it - what was supposedly anti-American about it? Sure, the community it was set in didn't come out of it all that well.. but was the town supposed to be a direct reflection of ALL America?


    1. As far as Breaking the Waves go, I was fine with the ending. It was sad, in that Bess died and the bells was just a subtle, little touch to send everyone home happy and it worked for me. Yes, I agree with the Stewart/Capra connection and you're right.

      Dogville was amazing, in my view and I'd probably give it a '10'. I never viewed it as an attack on America. I think this town could've existed anywhere and never took that it was intentionally set in the states to bash the U.S. I've never really spoken to anyone about it, so I'm not sure what the general consensus is on it. I loved the stage setting. Apparently "Manderlay" is supposed to be a sort of sequel to Dogviell, but I've never seen it.

  2. I agree this is a very good film that falls a little short of excellent. The interplay between love, sex, and religion was fascinating to me, and Emily Watson was amazing. I liked the ending with the bells, but I'm a sucker for sad but sweet endings.
    I had only vaguely heard of Dogville before, but I will definitely make a point to go check it out.

    1. Yes, William, please check out Dogville and check back to let us know what you thought.


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