Breaking the Waves
Screenplay : Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Emily Watson (Bess McNeill), Stellan Skarsgard (Jan), Katrin Cartlidge (Dodo McNeill), Jean-Marc Barr (Terry), Adrian Rawlins (Dr. Richardson), Jonathan Hackett (Priest), Sandra Voe (Mother)
"Breaking the Waves" is a complex and disturbing look at what one woman would do for the sake of love, and how her desire to be her husband's salvation runs head-to-head with the moral tenants of her strict Christian upbringing. It is at once a religious allegory and an attack on Christian fundamentalism, wrapped up in art house pretension and grainy, hand-held camerawork.
The first English-language film from Danish writer/director Lars von Trier, "Breaking the Waves" forces concepts on the viewer that must be absolutely accepted or rejected. Depending on how you deal with those concepts will determine whether this film is a masterpiece or a lot of anti-establishment blathering.
The film opens with Bess (newcomer Emily Watson in a painfully intense performance) explaining to her church elders why she is going to marry an "outsider," a large but lovable Danish oil rig worker named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard). Bess is an almost childlike woman with a history of emotional instability who lives in a small, coastal Scottish town sometime in the mid-70's. The town is dominated by the fundamentalist church and its repressive Calvinistic ideals. The church can make you into a village outcast, women are not allowed to speak during services, and the elders don't mind standing at a funeral intoning that the recently deceased is on his way to hell.
Once Bess and Jan are married, she is so excited to consummate their relationship that she allows Jan to deflower her in a church bathroom upstairs during the reception. "What do I do?" she asks him quietly. While this sounds a bit odd, it is actually a touching scene. It is quickly evident in Bess's eyes that she has found a new, loving experience, and the film makes a strong argument for the power of sex between two people who love each other.
Bess and Jan's marriage is characterized by their erotic pleasures. Their scenes of lovemaking are graphically portrayed in their naturalism, but they are touching because you realize that love is being shared and not just physicality. One of the film's best scenes involves Bess seeing Jan naked for the first time, and the sheer wonderment on her face. In her innocence, she is the epitome of true, selfless love.
But then Jan has to leave to go work on the oil rig, and Bess is suddenly thrown into hysterics, the first true hint of her obsessive personality. Ten days before Jan is to come home on leave, he has a serious accident on the rig, and winds up paralyzed. Bess blames herself because she prayed for God to bring him home, and He did (she has an intense relationship with God where she speaks for both of them while praying). She believes that God is testing her and Jan's love, much the way He tested Job. This makes her more determined than ever to be faithful to Jan and sacrifice whatever she can for him.
The film takes a bizarre and inexplicable turn when Jan, who fears that he will never be able to make love to his wife again, asks her to find a lover and tell him the details about it. He tells her that this is the only way he can live, and without it, he will die. At first she refuses, but when Jan's condition worsens, she ultimately agrees.
First she tries to seduce a friendly doctor (Adrian Rawlins), and when that fails, she is reduced to fondling a stranger on a bus, and then dressing like a prostitute and picking up men at bars. Every time she has a sexual encounter, Jan's condition improves. Soon she learns that she doesn't even have to tell him about it, that he somehow knows when she is having sex with someone else.
Soon whispers are going about the village, and Bess's sister-in-law (Katrin Cartlidge) is questioning her activities. "Are you sleeping with other men to feed his sick fantasies?" she cries. "His head's full of scars--he's up to his eyeballs in drugs." The church casts her out, children throw stones at her in the street, but no matter. Bess believes that her willingness to sexually debase herself for Jan is his salvation, so much that she is willing to be with men that seasoned prostitutes are afraid of. She doesn't care what others think because inside she believes that what she is doing is right, and she will endure physical pain and depravation for her husband.
Von Trier described his film as a simple love story, but it's obviously much more than that. "Breaking the Waves" wants nothing more than to turn the entire Christian sense of morality upside down, and ask what is right? What is salvation? Of course, Jesus did the same thing, so the film makes Bess into its Christ figure while branding the church elders as the misguided Pharisees. Bess's obsessive love for Jan is above their petty rules, and she understands what they cannot because she has a direct line to God.
The first half of the film makes such an effective and intimate argument for the beauty and power of sex between a husband and wife, that it undermines that second half of the film. If von Trier really believes in the spirituality of lovemaking, how can he find Jan's salvation through Bess sexually debasing herself? The idea might have been plausible if Jan asked her to find another man who she could truly love, so that he would know that she was actually "making love" and not being systematically and willfully raped, but this is not the case. As it stands, his request is perverse, cruel, and twisted.
But because von Trier is determined to make Bess into a Christ figure, he has to make her suffer for her love. What destroys the analogy is that mankind did not ask Christ to suffer for mankind. Christianity is based on the notion that God offered Jesus to suffer and die for us, not for God. In "Breaking the Waves," Jan asks Bess to suffer for him, and she does, for him. Therefore, she is simply fulfilling his selfish desires, thus diminishing his ultimate redemption. If God had asked Bess to suffer in order to save Jan, the analogy would have been more complete.
Philosophical arguments sides, Von Trier's cinematic treatment of the material is fascinating. He used a process where the film is transferred to video and then back to film again in order to achieve a grainy, diluted look, like a videotape that has been watched too many times. He shot all the scenes with handheld cameras, giving a kind of strange, unsteady documentary feel that heightens the reality, almost like viewing someone's home movies.
Unfortunately, he felt compelled to insert nine chapter-stops in the film that break up the steady pace. The stops amount to computer-enhanced pastoral stills that are punctuated with awful 70's rock music from the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple, to name a few. I will never understand von Trier's decision to start the epilogue with Elton John's melodramatic tearjerker "Your Song," thus destroying the film's previously successful attempts to avoid sappy melodrama.
Although certain scenes succeed with great heart and emotion, "Breaking the Waves" as a whole does not. Von Trier's' strange mix of religion and sexuality ultimately falls short because his ideas are either too simplistic or too far-fetched. In today's open world, it's easy to take slaps at rigorous fundamentalism and call it close-minded and archaic. On the other end, von Trier's' notions of depraved sexuality as salvation are illogical and ineffective. To praise both the saving beauty of loving sex and the saving beauty of depraved sex is conflictive. He simply can't have it both ways.
©1997 James Kendrick