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Film Title

Breaking the Waves


Lars Von Trier


  • Emily Watson as Bess McNeill
  • Stellan Skarsgård as Jan
  • Katrin Cartlidge as Dodo McNeill
  • Jean-Marc Barr as Terry
  • Adrian Rawlins as Dr. Richardson
  • Udo Kier as Man on the trawler

Breaking the Waves is the devastating and very powerful story of faith, sacrifice and love. Crafted by Lars Von Trier, it doesn’t make for the easiest viewing but boasts an emotionally complex performance by Emily Watson and a dizzying visual style that haunt the mind.

Bess McNeill Breaking the WavesBess McNeill is a naive, childlike and devoutly religious girl brought up in an austere Scottish coastal town in the 1970’s. The elders of the town rule with a dogmatic power and are strictly religious to say the least, their actions include giving sinners a pauper’s funeral and not allowing women to voice opinions in church. Bess falls for Jan, an oil rig worker who is deemed as an outsider to the community. They eventually marry although this isn’t without a few eyebrows being raised. During the blissful days after their wedding, Bess is shown the love and sexual relationship that can be had between a couple. It is when Jan has to go back to his work that Bess finds it most difficult. She becomes distant and panics as she can’t bear to be without her beloved. She prays for his return from the rig. Jan does return yet not as Bess had hoped. He is severely injured in a working accident and most of his body is now rendered paralysed. Unable to sexually express his love to her, Jan asks Bess a strange question. He asks her to take other lovers and report back to him regarding the encounters, thereby making Jan feel like he is still a part of Bess. Bess is initially shocked by his question and refuses it. But she later becomes convinced that this will help Jan and so she goes out to perform these favours which start out innocent enough, but slowly evolve into dangerous and ultimately devastating consequences. Starkly powerful, uncomfortably shown and startling performed, Breaking the Waves makes for an uncompromising but astonishingly told story of the singular power of love and the horrifying sacrifices one is forced to make.

As is often the case with movies by Von Trier, Breaking the Waves is not for everyone and will polarize many. The grim quality to the story and the visual style won’t be for all audiences, but for those with a strong stomach it may be watchable. Von Trier employs a delirious, handheld camera to capture the escalating events that befall the beatific Bess. The colour appears to have been washed out which compliments the austere and horrifying community and its beliefs. A well-chosen soundtrack of 70’s rock and pop give the events a certain immediacy to the audience and provides a brief moment of happiness in the uncomfortable saga that soon arrives.

What really gives Breaking the Waves a haunting and shocking power is the emotionally shattering central performance from Emily Watson in her movie debut. She encompasses the pixie like innocence of Bess and the deep and heartfelt love that she holds for her husband. There isn’t one emotion that Watson doesn’t encompass in this story and her raw, intense and heartbreaking performance anchors the startling story. Whether crying out for Jan’s return, telling her doctor her talent, speaking to God in a childlike voice( before answering back in His voice) or marching up her strange path of martyrdom, Watson is a revelation.  Stellan Skarsgård is well cast as Jan, bringing an alternate tenderness and strangeness to his role. Katrin Cartlidge and Adrian Rawlins provide stunning support as the best friend of Bess and her local doctor, who both begin to worry for Bess. Jean-Marc Barr provides some humour as one of Jan’s co-workers, while Udo Kier is frighteningly sadistic as a sailor.

Uncomfortable and shocking in equal measure, Breaking the Waves is also a heartbreaking and powerful saga of religion and the strange power of one woman’s love and the shocking consequences which arise as a result of it.