Breaking the Waves

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Denmark, 1996

Director: Lars von Trier

Production: Zentropa Entertainments in collaboration with Trust Film Svenska AB, Liberator Productions S.a.r.l., Argus Film Productie, Northern Lights; color, 35mm CinemaScope; running time: 158 minutes. Released 5 July 1996, Copenhagen. Cost: DKK 52 million.

Producers: Vibeke Windeløv, Peter Aalbæk Jensen; screenplay: Lars von Trier in collaboration with Peter Asmussen and David Pirie; photography: Robby Müller; editor: Anders Refn; scenography: Karl Juliusson; sound: Per Streit; chapter photos: Per Kirkeby; digital manipulations by Søren Buus, Steen Lyders Hansen, Niels Valentin Dal.

Cast: Emily Watson (Bess); Stellan Skarsgård (Jan); Katrin Cartlidge (Dodo); Adrian Rawlins (Dr. Richardson); Jonathan Hackett (Priest); Sandra Voe (Mother); Jean-Marc Barr (Terry); Udo Kier (Sadistic sailor).

Awards: (selected) European Film of the Year, Berlin European Film Academy Award; Grand Prix, Cannes Film Festival; Best Film, Best Script, Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editor, Best Photography, Best Sound, Best Production Design, Best Make Up, and Best Light Engineer, Danish Film Academy Awards (Robert); Best Film, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress, Danish Film Critics Awards (Bodil); César Award for Best Foreign Film; Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Cinematographer, New York Film Critics Circle Awards; Guldbagge Award for Best Foreign Film, Swedish Film Institute; Best Film, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Director, National Society of Film Critics (U.S.A.).



Trier, Lars von, Breaking the Waves, København, 1996.


Björkman, Stig, "De glasklara bildernas magi," in Chaplin, no. 263, 1996

Kindblom, Mikaela, "Kvinnliga offerritualer," in Chaplin, no. 265, 1996.

Björkman, Stig, "Les nouvelles expériences de Lars von Trier," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1996.

Guérin, Marie-Anne, interview with Lars von Trier, in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), June 1996.

Audé, Francoise, and Christian Braad Thomsen, interview with Lars von Trier, in Positif (Paris), October 1996.

Guérin, Marie-Anne, and Frédéric Strauss, "Dossier," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), October 1996.

Dannowski, Hans Werner, "Theologische Motive," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), November 1996.

Oppenheimer, Jean, and David E. Williams, "Von Triers and Müller's Ascetic Aesthetic on Breaking the Waves," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1996.

Sedakova, and others, "Breaking the Waves and Ordet Are Compared by Panel of Philosophers and Sociologists Discussing Sin, Love, Faith, Evil," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), June 1997.

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Breaking the Waves indicates a major new direction in Lars von Trier's output. Following the Europa trilogy—with its depiction of a world in moral and political dissolution, its perverse sex, and its doom-laden atmosphere that almost makes death a relief—in Breaking the Waves the director shuffles the deck to create a film set in a community fighting tooth and nail against the moral dissolution represented in its eyes by anything novel or from the outside, a film which pays tribute to pure, all-consuming love, and for the first time features a female lead. It may end in death, but also in a kind of resurrection.

Emily Watson's Bess is the all-important lead, a simple woman brought up in a strictly religious Scottish small-town community. She marries Jan, a roustabout from the oil rigs, and sacrifices herself for him, so to speak, when he is paralysed in an accident on the rig and asks her to pick up other men, have sex with them, and then describe it to him. It is the only way he can have faith in his own recovery, he tells her. Her world is populated by God, Jan, and then everyone else. She has one-to-one conversations with her God, taking it upon herself to give Him a language by altering her voice and playing his part as he communicates directly with her. God is, quite literally, her counsellor, and as she has asked him to give her Jan back, she thinks she is to blame when Jan returns as a quadriplegic; for this reason, too, she is prepared to sacrifice herself in order to liberate him from the trammels of his paralysis.

One of the scoops of the film is its depiction of her love as unstinted, devouringly carnal, as pure sexual abandon that she experiences for the first time and refuses to relinquish. Her pain at Jan's departure is heartrending, and her physical reaction—hammering away at the machinery the roustabouts use every day—strikes home psychologically. When he asks her to abandon herself to other men there is no doubt that he does so in order to help a woman who seems doomed to lose her sensuality just as she discovers it, but his request develops into an obsession, revealing a demonic side to Jan, who also achieves some kind of perverted satisfaction through it.

Bess may be regarded as a simple fool, a forerunner to the people who act the idiots in Trier's next film, The Idiots, in their attempts to arrive at some kind of authenticity, a notion with its base in romanticism. Or she may be regarded as a parallel to the Greek chorus of Down's Syndrome dishwashers in Riget, or a successor to Mrs. Drusse, with her second sight the antithesis of the studied rationality of the medical world. Almost everywhere in Trier's films rationality and irrationality are contrasted, revealing areas where the common sense of civilization fails, such as in the face of the hypnosis used in the Europa trilogy to break down barriers and arrive at memory's traumatic spots, where (self) control is switched off. At the same time Bess may be regarded as a saviour, a redeemer, whose self-sacrifice redeems Jan from a hopeless life chained to the bed and oxygen mask. Not only does she submit quite literally to people (men) and their sexual desires; she also embarks on a voyage across the Styx to the dangerous vessel where her fateful death awaits her. When she returns against all expectations, and is excommunicated by her church, she is stoned by a group of children who pursue her relentlessly on her Via Dolorosa—the path to the church that has rejected her and knows not the mercy that is otherwise part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

With provocation typical of Trier, female sexual submission is thus merged with the cruel rejection by the church of she who is pure of heart. The results were only to be expected. In Denmark the film aroused opposition and argument like no other film in recent times. Priests and women in particular felt it incumbent on them to refute its perception of religion and its image of women. In this post-feminist age Bess may be seen as an anachronism, but Emily Watson defends her, acting with a vulnerability moving and convincing in every detail as regards the pain of her loss, the sincerity of her love, the pureness of her heart. Trier has created a female figure worthy of his great compatriot Carl Theodor Dreyer, a mixture of Dreyer's Joan of Arc, who goes to the stake for her faith; Gertrud, who desires utter devotion and not the adoration of luke-warm men; and Anna from Day of Wrath, who would rather die as a witch than live with a man who renounces love to save his life.

Trier emphasizes the stylization of this romantic melodrama by the use of chapter divisions in which pictures of landscapes are visually manipulated to convey the way the romantics perceived nature. The chapter titles range from the specific "Bess gets married" and "Life with Jan" to abstracts such as "Doubt," "Faith," and "Bess' Sacrifice," thus underlining the increasingly religious, allegorical character of the tale. At the same time the melodrama is acted out in the style he invented for what he called his pot-boiler, the genre-ironic television series, The Kingdom. The irony may be absent from Breaking the Waves, but Trier still uses the hand-held camera and monochrome sepia tints that in the cinema in CinemaScope made people sea-sick. The mobile camera gives us shots of the town and landscape that are clear-cut and real in almost documentary fashion, going ultra-close-up to the characters, pursuing them into the most painful nooks and crannies of the mind, and rendering them visible. Just as Bess transgresses the conventions of her community, the director transgresses those of film narrative by tossing continuity in the normal sense to the winds, along with the classical rules for angles and edits. Instead of continuity he goes for an emotional intensity that sucks the viewer into this small-minded world of pig-headed men who only understand love and ultimate sacrifice in terms of the Bible, not of real life. And when the bells finally ring out in the sky we feel the breath of Tarkovsky and his sense of visualized metaphysics, just as the miracle from Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer is an obvious source of inspiration.

—Dan Nissen