Film review: Breaking the Waves (1996)

Spoilers occur about the ending, this review is intended for those who have already watched the film

My review is a contribution to the LAMB Lars von Trier director's chair event July 16th. I will post several more Lars von Trier film reviews during July, as he's one of my favourite contemporary directors.

Set in a religious community in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, it is about an unusual, young woman, Bess McNeill, and of the love she has for Jan, her husband.

Breaking the Waves is widely regarded as one of the most distinctive European films of the 1990s, marking von Trier's movement toward his influential Dogma 95 school of filmmaking, which emphasizes realistic situations of contemporary life, filmed without background music and with a hand-held, restlessly moving camera.

A riveting and brave performance by Emily Watson, von Trier told her that when she spoke to God, she should speak as a little girl who is talking to a doll. The main character Bess was criticized in reviews for being an improbable character, a childlike martyr who was a bad role model for those who rebel. Also, Lars von Trier was accused of being a manipulator, pushing all the right buttons to make the story shocking and powerful.

The style of Breaking the Waves has a documentary realism. The realism contains elements of allegory, the arty chapter images, which remind us that the film is not just reality. The chapter pictures are nature panoramas with symbolic ingredients, land, sea, sky, which foreshadow redemption and divinity.

As Jan state of mind gradually worsens, he pushes Bess further and further into sexual humiliation: “Let me die, I am evil in the head” Jan writes on a piece of paper to Bess.
In the preface to the book version Director’s Note – This film is about ‘Good’, von Trier interprets Jan as a good person, who’s evil requests aimed at Bess are caused by brain damage and medication. This harmonizes with an earlier scene, which points to, that it was Jan’s initial goodness that provoked Bess to liberate herself sexually without him.
But of course Bess’ newly awakened sexuality may also have been terminated, so she became frustrated. Going along with Jan’s plan fit into her need to express herself sexually.

The other interpretation is she is suffering for Jan’s sake, and there is no pleasure other than helping Jan, and this interpretation is more plausible, considering the religious ending. The American critic Susan Sontag has pointed toward the similarity between sexual obsession and religious obsession. Producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen called the concept of the film a women who is screwing herself into paradise.

Bess submitting herself sexually appears as an act of love, which is to redeem the traumatized troubled Jan. Bess represents the will to sacrifice, an unspoiled goodness, even though she is doing something everyone finds alarming and unacceptable, Jan’s needs precede the values of the community. Emancipation for Bess is in death. The na├»ve goodness of a woman would be a theme in Lars von Trier’s subsequent work, Dogville and Dancer in the Dark.
We wonder if Jan is saved because love, expressed through sexual humiliation, is healing. Has God accepted Bess’ sacrifice and is rewarding Jan by making him walk again?

The filmmakers could have settled for letting us hear the bells, whereby the miracle would have been possible to interpret as a mental experience, but by showing the bells in the sky there is no denying they exist.
It’s an obvious conclusion to regard the suffering Bess as a female Jesus figure, who lets herself be crucified out of love, “Bess’ sacrifice” as the seventh chapter is named. Bess rises again as a spirit, the liberator and the liberated.

I have read in the early stages of production, the community was Catholic, and was changed to Puritan protestants, because von Trier realized the miracle would appear stronger in a community not believing in miracles. Puritans are hostile towards social pleasures and indulgences.

To confuse matters, the wikipedia page on the film declares the community belonging to a Calvinist church, which apparently is close to the Puritan faith.

In Breaking the Waves, the community is a source of power, whom cast people out, whom have other values, or divert too far from the norm. On a deeper level, Breaking the waves postulates a conflict between the institutionalized faith (the church and the bible), and a personal religion acquired through other channels, for example, experience.

Interview about Breaking the Waves (1996):

Lars von Trier: “I prefer working with extreme ideas, and I wanted to make a film about ‘goodness’. When I was little, I had a children’s book called Guldhjerte (Goldheart), which I had very clear and happy memories of. It was a picture book about a little girl who goes into the forest with some slices of bread and other stuff in her pockets. But at the end of the book, when she’s got through the forest, she’s standing there naked and with nothing left. And the last line in the book was: ‘But at least I’m okay’, said Goldheart. It seemed to express the ultimate extremity of the martyr’s role. I read the book several times, in spite of the fact that my father thought it was absolute rubbish. The story of Breaking the Waves probably comes from that. Goldheart is Bess in the film. I also wanted to make a film with a religious theme, a film about miracles. And at the same time I wanted to make a completely naturalistic film”

Lars von Trier: “As you can see, Breaking the Waves doesn’t follow the (Dogme 95) rules exactly. I wasn’t able to resist tinkering with the film’s colour and technical appearance. Maybe I shouldn’t have done, if I was going to be faithful to my own theory. But I felt a need to restrict myself, and that was the spirit in which the manifesto was created.”

Interviewer: What do you think is unique about your signature? What is it in a film that means that we can see it’s one of yours?

Lars von Trier: “This will probably sound pretentious, but somehow I hope people will be able to see that every image contains a thought. It probably sounds arrogant, and it might not be true. But I think that every image and every edit is thought through. There’s no coincidence at all.

Interviewer: Breaking the Waves has a strong religious background. What made you include that in the film?

Lars von Trier: “Probably because I’m religious myself. I’m a Catholic, but I don’t pray to Catholicism for Catholicism’s sake. I’ve felt a need for a sense of belonging to a community of faith, because my parents were committed atheists. I flirted with religion a lot as a young man. In your youth you’re probably attracted to more extreme religions. Either you disappear to Tibet or you seek out the strictest faith available, with total abstinence and so on.
I think I’ve developed a more Dreyer-esque view of it all now. Dreyer’s view of religion was primarily humanist. He also tackles religion in all his films. Religion is attacked, but not God. That’s what happens in Breaking the Waves.”

Interviewer: In the film, religion is described as a power structure. The mechanics of power and its problematics is something you’ve tackled in several of your previous films

Lars von Trier: “My intention was never to criticize any particular faith, like the one in this Scottish setting. That doesn’t interest me at all (…) In many ways I can understand people who are obsessed by spiritual issues, often in a very extreme way. It’s just that if you’re going to create a melodrama you have to include certain obstacles. And religion struck me as being a suitable obstacle. “

Interviewer: Bess’ conversations with God have a directness and an intimacy that gives a human voice to the religious theme.

Lars von Trier: “Bess is also an expression of that religion. Religion is her foundation, and she accepts its conditions without question. In the funeral scene at the beginning of the film, the priest condemns the deceased to eternal damnation in hell, which is something Bess finds completely natural. She has no scruples about that. But we, on the other hand, do. Bess is confronted with a lot of other power structures, like the power exerted by the hospital and the other doctors. And she has to adopt a position using the inherent goodness that she possesses.”

Lars von Trier: “What I particularly wanted was for Per (Kirkeby) –who’s both an artist and a theorist – to find different ways of expressing the romantic landscape. (…) What he did to the pictures made them considerably more interesting and ambiguous. Perhaps I was aiming more towards the grandiose. (…) I’m very fond of that picture. You can read as much symbolism into it as you like. You can see the bridge as a link between life and death. And the water representing eternity. And so on. But I haven’t really thought about it. Everyone can interpret any perceived symbolism as they like. But I think it’s an expressive picture. And I think it works well with David Bowie’s Life on Mars.”

Interviewer: You’ve often mentioned Dreyer as a source of inspiration. Do you think that’s the case even on this film?

Lars von Trier: “Yes, I can see that films The Passion of Joan of Arc and Gertrud have probably been significant for Breaking the Waves. Dreyer’s films are naturally more academic, more cultivated. What’s new for me is having a woman at the center of the story. And of course, all of Dreyer’s films had women as their main characters – women who are suffering, as well. The film’s original title was actually going to be Amor Omhie (Love is Everything), the epitaph that Gertrud wanted on her grave in Dreyer’s film.”

Lars von Trier: “The priest talks about loving the Word and the Law. That was the only thing you had to obey. That’s what would make a person complete. But Bess twists the concepts and says that the only thing that can make a person complete is loving another person. This is really a formulation of the film’s moral. (…) So what you could say about Bess is that she represents feminism against the extremely misogynist priesthood. And her sister-in-law, Dodo, does much the same”

Lars von Trier: “I think that this strong engagement with emotions was very important for me, because I grew up in a home – a culturally radical home – where strong emotions were forbidden. Those members of my family whom I’ve showed the film to have been very critical of it – both my brother and my uncle, who’s also involved in film. My brother thought the film was indifferent and dull, and my uncle saw it as a total mistake from beginning to end. But otherwise, with my earlier films, he’s been extremely supportive. Perhaps Breaking the Waves is my teenage rebellion.”

Interviewer: The film was criticized by feminist commentators. They reacted against the portrait of Bess sacrificing everything, even her life, for her husband. Breaking the Waves was accused of misogyny and of shameless manipulation.

Lars von Trier: “I haven’t come into direct contact with those accusations. Everyone is entitled to formulate their own opinion of the film”

Emily Watson was nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and won a European Film Award for Best Actress.
Breaking the Waves won the award for Best Film at European Film Awards, and was nominated for Best Motion Picture - Drama at Golden Globes.
Also won Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for the Palme d'Or.

The inspiration for Breaking the Waves was a childhood book Lars von Trier liked called Goldheart, a fairytale about a girl who goes into the forest with some crumbs, and on her journey gives away her food and clothes to people in need. She was so kind that she had given everything away.

Breaking the Waves might be too manipulative and controversial for some viewers with its mix of sexuality and religion. However if the powerful story and strong performances win you over, the film is one that stays with you, and can make you question your own relationships, faith, and attachments to community. Arguably Lars von Trier at the peak of his powers, all facets of Breaking The Waves seem to work, and the final scene in unforgettable.

My rating 8.0

Lars von Trier quotes:
Trier on von Trier / Stig Bjorkman (2005)

What do you guys think? Was my review useful? Have you watched Breaking the Waves (1996)? Share your opinions in the comments below

Next, I will look at Dancer in the Dark (2000), which finally won Lars von Trier the Palme d'Or having been nominated several times before.


  1. What an excellent analysis, I think you are spot on on everything. I do not like this film though, I dislike pretty much everything Von Trier did except for Melancholia and first hour and the ending of Dogville. He is seriously disturbed and his films are almost as hate messages for the entire world, especially for women.

    1. @Sati: Lars Von Trier is a provokative writer/director and his films are disturbing. I tend to look at it from another perspective, that to break through to the masses and really get the audiences attention these days, you HAVE to stand out.
      That said, I can understand why people could be offended, especially women. I think he has something to say, but sometimes you need to look past the disturbing scenes. He is not just provoking us for nothing...

  2. I love the style and the performances but I'd never want to watch this again. Pretty much how I feel about all his work though I didn't like Melancholia. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on Dancer. Thant's probably my favourite of his.

    1. @Pete: Von Trier's films are pretty tough to deal with, yet I find them rewarding, and am rewatching them currently.
      Three more to go: Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Antichrist. The rest I'm skipping. Melancholia I believe lots of bloggers have reviewed, so I won't bother.

  3. Fantastic analysis you picked out the little details that made the film amazing to watch. Excellent post.

    1. @vinnieh: Thanks for the kind words. I'll pop over to your site and see what you're up to ( :

  4. I watched this the other day and was completely blown away by it. It wasn't the easisest film to watch but it was certainly a fantastic one

    1. @vinnieh: Having seen most of his work, Breaking the Waves is among Lars von Trier's best in my opinion. I agree with what you say there.


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