Breaking the Waves
Lars von Trier, 1996

#1, 1996 Skandies

Mind the sled — I'm about to give away the whole thing here.

Breaking the Waves is set in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands where scowling elders caution against contact with "outsiders." Funerals consist of diatribes that the deceased is a sinner who is now burning in hell. Women are not allowed to speak at church services, at which men stand up and attest to the endless wrath of God and the corruption of the outside world. Bess McNeill has grown up here, but she is too simple for the theology of the region to have fully registered with her. Her God is a child's God, a bossy imaginary friend who tells her to be a good girl and whose voice she supplies in a silly anti-falsetto. The film opens with Bess's wedding to an "outsider," a Scandinavian named Jan who works on the North Sea oil rigs. Minutes after the wedding, she pulls Jan into the women's bathroom of the church and, with nervous giddiness, says, "Have me now," adding, "…what do I do?" Though tentative and awkward about lovemaking in the first few days of their marriage, after a little experience Bess finds it a wondrous blessing, gasping "thank you" to the God in the ceiling as her husband plows her in their bed.

Jan takes her to the movies (which she watches goggle-eyed), and they hang out with his "outsider" friends, and it seems like the movie is going to be about Bess discovering the marvels of the outside world — and, since this is a Lars von Trier film, probably being hounded to death by the villagers as a result. Then Jan goes back to work on the oil rig and Bess falls apart, screaming and crying, while relatives grumble, not this again. At one point Jan gets put on a second shift and isn't able to call Bess as promised, so she waits in the village phone box all day and night. When he does get in touch with her, she won't say she loves him, because "everyone says" she is too hung up on him and her feelings aren't healthy; when Jan pleads with her to say it anyway, it comes out as a blubbering "I love you sooo MUUUCH" that suggests that "everyone" may have had a point. So maybe this would be the theme? Bess learning to be less dependent on her family and her village and her husband?

Then, the big twist. Bess prays for God to return Jan home before his scheduled furlough. Shortly thereafter, Jan gets clonked in the head on the oil rig and is choppered to the hospital. Bess prays for God to spare Jan's life. Jan lives!…as a quadriplegic. Ah, now I get it, I thought. So this is a 2½-hour, stately version of one of those asshole genie jokes. Fortunately, this phase of the movie eventually gives way to something else. Jan encourages Bess to start seeing other men, since he will no longer be able to perform his husbandly duties and will probably die before long. Bess is horrified by this idea, so Jan takes a different tack: "I want you to find a man to make love to, and then come back here and tell me about it. It will feel like you and me being together again. Now that, that will keep me alive." It now seemed like this would be a tale of how Jan cleverly finds a way to keep Bess from spending the rest of her life mourning him and refusing to find a new life partner. I stuck to that hypothesis for a fair while even after Bess borrowed a set of trashy clothes and joined the prostitutes in the bars and out at the docks. But, as it turned out, the real story is that Bess grows convinced that the more she degrades herself, the better Jan gets, so eventually she finds a slasher to cut her to ribbons so Jan can fully recover. (Which he does.)

If that had been the whole thing, I might have been fine with it, since it lends itself to a number of interpretations. However, four things happen at the end that torpedoed my opinion of the film:

1) Bess stumbles into a church service where a bearded elder is intoning, "Because there is only one thing for us, sinners that we are, to achieve perfection in the eyes of God: through unconditional love for the word that is written, through unconditional love for the law." Bess blurts out that you cannot love words but only another human being, and that that is perfection. The church leaders thunder that no woman is permitted to speak, and formally cast Bess out of their sect, at which point everyone in the village shuns her and children taunt her and pelt her with rocks.
2) At Bess's funeral, the villagers consign her to hell, prompting her sister-in-law to barge in and shout that they don't have the right.
3) Her doctor had listed Bess as "immature," "obsessive," and "neurotic." At the court of inquiry looking into her death, he testifies that instead of those terms, "I might just, um, use a word like… 'good.'"
4) A big point is made of the fact that the church in the village has no bells. When Jan has Bess buried at sea, celestial bells ring for her.

Put it all together and it's hard to escape the implication that the above constitutes the message of the movie: that the Gaelic Taliban is bad, and that Bess's self-negating fixation on Jan is saintly. Let's take those one at a time. One: patriarchal sects that impose a joyless existence governed by terror of damnation are bad. Fair enough, but, uh, who is the target audience for this message? Is there anyone in the audience at a Lars von Trier movie who disagrees on this point? Polemical pieces tend to work best when the opposing viewpoint is broadly but not deeply held. For instance, in 1945, there was wide support in the West for Josef Stalin — the USSR had been key to Allied victory in WWII — but it was shallow enough that George Orwell was able to open a lot of eyes with Animal Farm. But I don't think there are many casual adherents of hardline Calvinism for Breaking the Waves to sway. I dunno, maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps people saw parallels with their own faiths and Bess convinced them that there was a better way. But I have my doubts.

On the flip side, I was not won over to the notion that an all-consuming attachment to another person is the key to supreme virtue, or even that it's good. But I'm working on that topic elsewhere so I won't belabor it here.

These articles are not reviews, but still, people sometimes read them and ask, "Yeah, but did you like it?" My response this time around: this is a very well-made and well-acted film, at the service of one theme that is pretty clearly an exercise in preaching to the choir and another with which I strongly disagree. So I guess I'd say that while I certainly recommend it as a strong piece of filmmaking, no, I didn't like it.

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