Breaking the Waves - Lars von Trier - Emily Watson - Bess McNeill

Breaking the Waves
1996, directed by Lars von Trier

The surprising thing about Breaking the Waves is that there’s a certain equivalence between Bess and the church elders who judge her. Bess has an unusual habit of making her prayers a two-sided conversation, giving voice to God in answer to her own pleas. The elders also have a habit of speaking for God, going so far as to declare recently deceased parishioners – including Bess – “consigned to Hell” at a burial service. On the face of things, Bess’s behavior looks suspiciously like a psychotic symptom, adding credence to Dr. Richardson’s push to isolate her in a psychiatric ward. When the church elders speak for God, however, the conventional point of view would regard them as sane, even if outdated or misguided. Breaking the Waves of course looks behind the face of things, and if we share the film’s sympathy for Bess, we should appreciate that the conventional view has it backward.

To say that the film takes Bess’s side is not to say that she speaks for God more accurately than the elders. When she replies to herself in God’s voice she shows no sign of divine inspiration. Her words are nothing new, only scolding reproaches or platitudes about God’s constant presence. When God tells her, “You must learn to endure,” the voice merely echoes Bess’s mother who had said the same thing. Bess’s religion is a product of her upbringing, and in a sense she follows it more devoutly than her elders who speak so smugly of their love for the commandments. When Bess obeys Jan’s instruction to sleep with other men, she follows the logic of the commandment further than the church fathers would ever be willing to acknowledge. It’s no secret that Breaking the Waves finds Bess closer than her church is to the spirit of Christianity, but it’s also important that it takes her side against the modern world, which attempts to speak for God in its own way, and which casts her out just as surely as the church does.

Breaking the Waves - Lars von Trier - Robert Robertson - chairman - church elders - burial

The Reformed church in Bess’s Scottish village is a historical relic, little changed in appearance or thought from the seventeenth century. It exists in close contact with modern Scotland, yet any clash between those two worlds is surprisingly subdued, as if smoothed out by the centuries. Bess’s sister-in-law Dodo crosses the line between them easily, attending services at the church while working as a hospital nurse and holding to her own way of thinking. The smartly dressed blonde who lends Bess her sexy clothes also attends the church. The wedding reception is full of tension between the old churchmen and Jan’s irreverent friends, but it never flares up. Terry laughs at the old men, and they scorn him in return, but when Terry chugs a beer and crushes the can, the old chairman simply one-ups him, chugging a lemonade and bravely crushing the glass in his hand. The two sides may differ, but they have their parallels.

What makes Bess’s behavior so intolerable to both sides, to Dodo and Dr. Richardson as much as to her mother and the elders, is something more than open sexuality. Even prostitutes have a place in their rural Scottish society. Bess represents a particular challenge to the social order that the film will define carefully. At first impression Breaking the Waves seems to be full of sex, though in truth its depiction of sex is restrained. No penetration is shown; there are only flashes of nudity; and the sex scenes are brief. It’s almost as if the sex serves some semiotic function, as we get the minimum needed to make a point.

Breaking the Waves - Lars von Trier - Stellan Skarsgård - Emily Watson - Jan Nyman - Bess McNeill - wedding

The movie’s greatest indulgence in eroticism is between Bess and her new husband Jan. They have sex three times in close succession, which may seem superfluous until we catch the underlying point. It’s as if Bess loses her virginity three times – first by penetration, second in the mutual enjoyment of their naked bodies, and third in the experience of orgasm. The separation of the three new experiences – each an essential part of sexual pleasure – calls attention to the fullness of sexual experience, without which the metaphorical value of sex will be too abstract. Afterwards, whenever Jan or Bess speak of sex, they also speak of love. He asks her to continue her sex life for both of them because he cannot live without love – and however sordid her sexual encounters turn out to be, for her they always occur within her marriage: “I don’t make love with them. I make love with Jan.” In the film’s argument sex is a metaphor for love, but the metaphor does not stop there.

Breaking the Waves opens with a brief prologue in which Bess and the elders discuss her upcoming wedding. The first line alludes to the Gospel of John: “His name is Jan,” obliquely introducing the role of words in religion, which Bess will later address in the church. The chairman reminds Bess that the church doesn’t favor marriage with outsiders, and when he asks what value outsiders have brought to their community, Bess answers defiantly, “Their music.” Later we’ll find out just how anathema music is to the church when the minister tells Jan, “We do not need bells in our church to worship God.” The prologue ends with Bess smiling sideways into the camera – a manner of winking at the audience, letting us know that whatever happens, she knows what she’s doing.

Breaking the Waves - Lars von Trier - Jean-Marc Barr - Stellan Skarsgård - Terry - Jan Nyman

The absence of bells defines Bess’s church, as much as a love of music defines Bess’s vision of life. The only music in the church is a joyless kind of singing – yet Bess, who has long been active in the church, volunteering her efforts to tidy it up, is a great lover of music. Breaking the Waves celebrates the music of her generation, sampling from about twenty popular songs. Like sex, music represents a love for life that’s decidedly absent from the church.

Bess’s great flaw, in the eyes of her family and friends, is that she loves too much. On her wedding day she loses patience because Jan’s helicopter is late, and likewise she can’t bear his absence while he’s on the oil rig. When Jan calls her in the phone booth she confesses her reluctance to admit her love because it’s too overflowing. Her impatience for Jan causes  his accident, at least insofar as the movie credits the efficacy of her prayers, because she asks God to bring him home at any cost. Still, the same love that paralyzes him also cures him, and we cannot doubt that the movie takes her side – but against what exactly?

Breaking the Waves - Lars von Trier - burial

It’s not enough to speak of the absence of love in Bess’s church. In her final confrontation there she walks in on a man speaking of “perfection in the eyes of God through unconditional love for the word that is written.” From the back door she replies, “I don’t understand what you’re saying. How can you love a word? You cannot love words. You cannot be in love with a word.” Her argument against the church fathers proves that Lars von Trier understood well the argument Carl Theodor Dreyer made in Day of Wrath and Ordet, both against the abstraction of words and against the wish to speak for God, both of which go hand in hand. The elders place so much faith in language – a human invention – that they elevate it above love itself. Only someone who dwells in the abstraction of language could be so arrogant as to claim knowledge that another person deserves damnation.

What’s not necessarily obvious is that the film’s argument against this archaic village church is absolutely parallel to its argument against modern thinking, in which it finds the same defects. Bess’s banishment from the church, which her mother warns her against, is less horrific than what Dodo and Dr. Richardson do to her, coercing Jan to sign papers that would separate husband from wife forever. They tell themselves they’re acting in Bess’s interest, which is no less arrogant than the church elders pretending to speak for God. Bess reproaches the man in church for being “in love with a word”, but Dr. Richardson is no different, always telling Bess it’s time for a “talk” or a “chat”. There’s no sign that the modern world is any less infatuated with words than the tyrannical religions of centuries past. Just as Bess takes the church’s commandment to honor her husband further than the elders would wish, she also takes Dodo’s advice to “try listening to what he says” more seriously than Dodo would wish.

Breaking the Waves - Lars von Trier - Jean-Marc Barr - Stellan Skarsgård - Terry - Jan Nyman - ending - oil rig - bells

Much of the power in Breaking the Waves is concentrated in its remarkable ending. After helping to steal Bess’s body and burying her at sea, sparing her the indignity of the church’s cruel condemnation, Jan wakes up on the oil rig to find bells ringing miraculously in the sky. It’s a fittingly wordless sign from Bess, again linking music with love. We don’t need to believe that someone like Bess could cure paralysis and perform celestial wonders – what’s essential is that we believe that love can triumph over the madness of worshipping words, this idolatry that debases our world and strips it of joy.


Day of Wrath – Structural equivalence between a persecuted woman and her accusers; argument against the tyranny of words; human tendency to play God

Ordet – Character named after John the Evangelist, with implied reference to the gospel’s opening line; contrast between two versions of Christianity; miracle at the end

Chase a Crooked Shadow – Persecution of a woman whose sanity is in doubt; definition of innocence or goodness

Winter Light – Argument against a version of Christianity that emphasizes death to the detriment of life and love

I Knew Her Well – Woman portrayed as a saint despite her flagrant sexuality

Andrei Rublev – Seven parts with a prologue and epilogue; tale of inspiration emerging from sin; bell(s) ringing at the end

The Sacrifice – Allusion to the opening verse of the Gospel of John; character instructed to sleep with someone other than the spouse; sacrifice at the end

The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Co-existence of the 17th and 20th centuries and the unexpected accord between them

Dancer in the Dark – Good woman condemned by a judgmental society; seven parts

Melancholia – Wedding at the beginning; fault line of the film’s argument runs between two sisters or sisters-in-law who are nevertheless not entirely opposed; miracle or cataclysm in the sky at the end