Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bess (Emily Watson) and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) get married even if Bess’ highly devout religious community does not welcome strangers into their lifestyle. While Jan is away to work in an oil rig, a terrible accident occurs which leads to his paralysis. Bess, convinced she has a direct line of communication with God, feels guilty because she wished for Jan’s return prior to the incident. One day, Jan tells Bess that she ought to find a man, make love to the stranger, and go back to tell him all about it. Bess goes through with her spouse’s wish eventually. Soon, she notices that with every sexual act she engages in with another man, her husband appears to get better. She figures that maybe if she gets together with enough partners, Jan would be able to walk again.

There are few movies that chill me to the bone and “Breaking the Waves,” written by Lars von Trier and Peter Asmussen, is one of them. Part of its genius is that it works on several levels. It can be interpreted as a love story that teeters between sanity and lunacy. It can also be seen as an anti love story, a complex case study of religious indoctrination and what it does to the mind and one’s reality. Either way, it is a compelling piece of work.

Good actors can deliver two performances simultaneously. It is all the more impressive that Watson manages to deliver four performances. All of them, at least in terms of framework, could have been laughable under less capable hands. We get Bess the simple girl, Bess the married woman, Bess the God, and Bess the prostitute. Though each performance can be categorized quite easily, I admired how she dares to mix two or three of them at once. What results is a character I had never encountered before—and I was not prepared with what to do with or how to understand her best.

For example, we watch Bess—a married woman physically and a simple girl in reasoning—pray to God and we see her respond using the voice of what she believes her god might sound like. It might appear dangerously comical on paper, especially in a bleak drama, but Watson makes it work by giving Bess an unhealthy mix of innocence and desperation—she is a simple girl but she loves her husband so much that she will do anything, even if it puts herself in danger, not only to prove the fact but also to better his state of health. The choices she makes in how to play Bess feel fresh. Since the character is also unpredictable, it becomes a challenge to keep up with the subject’s state of mind.

We get to know the Scottish community through the way they treat those who they label as outcasts. There are three types in the film: Jan the new outsider, Dodo the old outsider (marvelously played by Katrin Cartlidge—a great sounding board for Bess’ struggle), and Bess, not only considered to be emotionally and psychologically feeble, she is also married to the new outsider. The lack of trust of the community to these figures are communicated in various ways: through silence, a judgmental look, or what they do or not do when one needs help. We are meant to respond to the community’s lack of moral compass—even if they believe their actions get a seal of approval from a higher power.

I do not and will probably never understand why some people feel that the film, directed by von Trier, is mean-spirited. Is it because the characters go through horrible ordeals? Is it due to the underlying commentary toward religious groups? How do these people define the word “mean-spirited” exactly? I think the movie is bold in that it is willing to go through unexplored territory to get a reaction from the audience while maintaining a razor-sharp focus on what it is hoping to accomplish. It is rare that we receive a high-class, high-level filmmaking that commands an original vision. They should be celebrated rather than condemned.

I say “Breaking the Waves” is a very human story. It focuses on the people who care about Bess—her husband, Dodo, the local doctor (Adrian Rawlins). We care about Bess when she is being hurt or in danger. It is not about hatred or violence. It is about love. Love, after all, is what compels the subject to do the things she ends up doing.

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