Breaking the Waves

"Movie Magazine International" Review

(Air Date: Week Of 11/20/96)

Mary Weems

Breaking the Waves, the first English language film made by Danish director Lars Von Trier, is either a beautiful film with a disturbing subtext, or a disturbing film with a beautiful subtext -- either way there's something unusual going on here. At the end, I was exhausted and awestruck - until my awe turned into anger at what I suddenly perceived as pure misogyny at the core of the film. To give away the ending would be criminal, but, quite simply, the film works itself into a state of nervous suspense that hangs not on action or turn of events, but on the psycho-spiritual state of the main characters. That's not something you see every day.

The story takes place in the 1970's in a tiny village on the Scottish coast, still in the grip of Puritanism. The church is too austere to even have a bell, and women can't attend funerals. The main character, Bess, played brilliantly by British actress Emily Watson, has grown up here, and often prays aloud in two voices -- her own girlish Bess voice, and the stern, reproachful voice of God. Yes, Bess is a little different as her best friend Dodo puts it.

First there's Bess' marriage to Jan, a Danish guy who works at sea on the oil rigs. Played by Stellan Skarsgard, big, long-haired Jan is visceral and life-affirming, drinking and listening to rock music with his pals. You watch two worlds collide as this lusty crew mixes with the town fathers at the wedding. Maybe it's an unlikely match, but Bess and Jan wallow blissfully in newlywed love and lust -- until he has to go back to sea. Then Bess goes off the deep end and tries to drag him bodily off the plane and must be sedated.

She prays to God he'll come back to her, at any cost, and he does -- paralyzed and on the verge of death after an accident. Of course, Bess blames herself -- isn't this the tragic answer to her prayer? If this sounds strange, you haven't heard anything yet. Next, Jan tells Bess that she can keep him alive only by having sex with other men, and telling him the details.

This is where another film would become a sex comedy, or something erotic, but the point here is that Bess is totally in love with Jan, and doesn't want to take her love to town-- the idea sickens her. But she can't refuse him anything, and we watch in horrified fascination as she betrays her own nature in order to, as she sees it, save her husband. A doctor who's half in love with her, and the loyal Dodo, try to save her, and the melodrama zigzags till it hits that unsettling ending that you don't see coming.

I've gotta add that Breaking the Waves is an open-ended, many-facted film, and you don't have to accept my feminist interpretation. You can take my word that it is powerful, well-crafted, consummately acted, and that it elicits that strong gut response that makes a film stick in your craw.

Copyright 1996 Mary Weems

"Movie Magazine International" Movie Review Index

"Movie Magazine International" Home Page