Today: February 21, 2024

Breaking the Waves

Over the years, Lars von Trier has acquired something of a reputation as the trickster god of European art house film. When he isn’t getting thrown out of Cannes for expressing sympathy for Hitler or enraging the British tabloids with blood-spurting penises, he’s helping to launch radical cinematic manifestos that ban everything from genre films to lighting rigs. However, as striking and memorable as films like The Idiots and Antichrist may be, they are really little more than eye-catching entry points to the work of one of the most sensitive, perverse and uncompromising directors working in Europe today. Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, Breaking the Waves is von Trier at his most affecting.

Bess McNeil (Emily Watson) is a little bit strange. Born into a puritanical religious community in the Highlands of Scotland where women are not allowed to speak in church and non-conformists are consigned to Hell at their own funerals, Bess is an unexpected bundle of otherworldly joy. Looked upon by her dour community as little more than a backward child, Bess surprises everyone by announcing her intention to marry an outsider who works on an oil rig.

One of the more peculiar things about Bess is that when she talks to God, God appears to answer back. Regardless of whether you interpret these conversations as the real thing or expressions of Bess’s child-like vision of the world, there is no denying that Bess takes her relationship with God extremely seriously. In fact, when God finally answers Bess’ requests for a man to love, she brings just as much passion to this new relationship as she does to her relationship with God. For Bess, love is not just an emotion but a way of being.

Completely unprepared for an adult relationship, Bess asks her new husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) what is expected of her and he responds by introducing her to sex. A Raffish and taciturn presence throughout the film, Jan seems to view sex as something of a sacrament and so the couple’s intense love for each other translates into them going at it hammer and tongs for their entire honeymoon. In fact, Bess is so taken with the love she feels for her husband that when Jan is forced to return to work, she begins to pine… and then to howl… and then to pray for a miracle that will bring him home to her side.

The miracle comes in the form of a horrific industrial accident that leaves Jan paralysed from the neck down. Initially, Bess is overjoyed to have Jan back home but the intensely physical nature of their relationship soon becomes a problem as Jan now lacks the capacity to express his love in a physical manner. Rather than finding a different basis for their relationship and a different manner in which to express affection, the heavily-medicated Jan suggests that Bess take a lover so that he can vicariously experience the love of his wife. Initially horrified, Bess soon acquiesces to Jan’s requests and comes to believe that having sex with random men is helping to cure her husband.

Breaking the Waves is a film about faith. Bess uses her faith in God as a template for her relationship with Jan and because her relationship with God is one of blind, unquestioning and passionate submission, she does not have it in her to deny her heavily-medicated husband when he begins making perverse requests. Bess’s faith in God and Jan is so pronounced that when Jan’s condition deteriorates, she believes that it is because of her lack of faith and so she begins to seek out increasingly violent and degrading men with whom to have sex. The end of the film is gut-wrenching because it proves that Bess was right all along but it also leaves you wondering what kind of God/Husband would demand such blind and self-destructive obedience from those they claim to love?

Western culture frequently deals with the message of Christianity by shifting the discussion of faith and sacrifice away from Jesus and towards Joan of Arc, the fifteenth century religious and military figure who was burned at the stake for claiming to have received instructions from a variety of Catholic saints. One of the more memorable cinematic takes on this story is The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer in which a beautiful young woman weeps as she is condemned and tortured by hideous old men. While von Trier’s film may be neither historical nor silent, Breaking the Waves is clearly in dialogue with Dreyer’s film  as both films are concerned with the price of faith and both use the beauty and saintly nature of their female leads to secure the audience’s sympathy against those who would torture and demean them. The primary thematic difference between von Trier’s film and that of Carl Theodor Dreyer is that von Trier dares to push the analysis further and includes God amongst the torturers. Upon reflection, it would appear that this analysis could go even further: If God is a villain for allowing a beautiful young woman like Bess to be beaten and tortured for the sake of their faith then what are we to make of a cinematic tradition that keeps producing and lionising films in which beautiful young women are beaten, raped and forced into sex work for the sake of dramatic pathos? How many times do people need to remake Robert Bresson’s Mouchette before we realise that this story has been told and that it is always women who suffer in these types of existential passion play? When a man is beaten down by the misery of the world, he turns into a dead-eyed killer. When a woman is beaten down by the misery of the world, she turns into a dead-eyed sex-worker. Aside from being sexist, this storyline has now been revisited so many times that it cannot be thought of as anything other than generic. Breaking the Waves is beautifully made and deeply affecting film but the reason it works so well is because its themes and narratives are incredibly familiar.

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