Breaking the Waves: a study of religious hypocrisy and oppression, and its effects on a naive woman, with a hollow heart

Lars von Trier, “Breaking the Waves” (1996)

For the most part this often nihilistic film is excruciating in its slow and exacting pace, and its drama is manipulative as well, but “Breaking the Waves” does raise very troubling questions about the nature of religious faith, Christian concepts about love, self-sacrifice and the role of women in conservative, fundamentalist Christian communities, and how Christianity offers both redemption and oppression to women if they believe in it. Its main character, Bess McNeill (Emily Watson in her film debut) is a naive young woman who has grown up in a severely authoritarian and insular Calvinist community in a remote part of Scotland. Quite how she meets Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a hard-drinking, hard-living Swede working on a North Sea oil rig, is never explained but the two end up marrying, to the disapproval of Bess’s community. Only the girl’s mother and widowed sister-in-law, nurse Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), grudgingly accept Jan. Through Jan, Bess experiences the joys and bliss of sexual intercourse and, having been starved of love and closeness all her life, becomes very needy and dependent on Jan.

Jan eventually has to return to the oil rig and Bess is thrown into despair. Her usual habit is to retreat to church or some place where no-one can observe her talking to God (in her own voice) and disputing with Him. She prays to God to return Jan and He apparently does so – by crippling Jan in an accident on the rig. Rendered paralysed from the neck down, Jan selfishly begs Bess to have affairs with other men and relay the details back to him so the couple can retain their carnal connection. Naturally Bess is repelled by Jan’s suggestion but as his condition goes from bad to worse, she starts to carry out his suggestions by masturbating men in buses and gradually whoring herself out to local men. Jan’s condition seems to improve after Bess tells him about her adventures and so she continues. Her behaviour antagonises Dodo and Dr Richardson who determine to keep her away from Jan and then to send her to a mental asylum as she appears to become more deluded about her ability to keep Jan alive and improve his condition. Needless to say, Bess’s family and church community are revolted by her activities and excommunicate her when she most needs emotional support and compassion for the arduous trials she believes God has imposed on her to demonstrate her love for Jan.

Watson’s acting as Bess is a tour-de-force that she has never been able to repeat in subsequent work and gives the character a depth that suggests the apparent naivete is a defence against the oppression and emotional coldness Bess has had to suffer all her life. It seems that only Jan is able to understand and appreciate what Bess is capable of. Dodo and Dr Richardson represent stereotypical well-meaning people who care for Bess but are blinded by the rationality drilled into them by nursing and medical school respectively. The rest of the cast pale into the background but do what they can to fill out a story that looks realistic but flies by its own Trierian logic. Von Trier milks the plot for all it can offer to create an emotional and moral dilemma for Bess: is Jan really out of his mind from all the drugs and surgical interventions? how can Bess tell if Dodo is telling her the truth about Jan’s day-to-day condition? does Jan sign the form approving Bess’s own interment into an asylum under duress from Dr Richardson?

The eventual resolution of the film’s plot sends up the central Christian belief in Jesus’ sacrifice for the love of humanity through crucifixion, his entombment, the disappearance of his body and his eventual resurrection. Significantly Dodo and Dr Richardson are converted to Bess’s cause after (spoiler alert) her agonising passion and persecution.

Love may be a mighty power indeed but at what cost to a person’s sanity and the values she lives by? The road that Bess is forced to travel and which strips her of love, support and finally God Himself is an unbelievably cruel and sadistic one. One suspects the reward she receives is not worth the degradation she is forced to undergo and the deity she worships is undeserving of her devotion. Despite the film’s excellent performances and the plot complications that enrich it, at its heart is a spiritual vacuum.

css.php