Breaking the Waves
Rated R–language, nudity,
and sexual content

Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson play Jan and Bess One of the most fascinating movies of 1996, by turns deeply religious and brutally carnal, Breaking the Waves is set in the early 1970's in a tightly-knit Covenanter community on the north coast of Scotland. Bess (Emily Watson), a naive and devout young woman, falls helplessly in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a worldly outsider who comes through the community on his way to and from work on oil rigs in the North Sea. A virgin when she and Jan marry, she insists that they consummate their nuptials in the bathroom during the reception. Scenes like these are not handled delicately in the film written and directed by Lars von Trier.

The newlyweds' bliss is interrupted when Jan has to return to the oil rig, leaving Bess bereft and distraught. Long nightly phone conversations fail to quell her sense of loss and longing, and she prays fervently that God will return Jan to her. Seriously injured by an explosion during his work, Jan is returned sooner than expected, suffering potentially fatal brain damage and totally paralyzed.

Though Bess's faith in God's ability to restore her husband is unshakable, Jan has no relationship with God and determines that in order for her to have a life she must put him behind her. He persuades her to take a lover by convincing her that the only thing that will help his recovery is her returning to his bedside to describe her trysts. Bess begins to believe her conduct can affect Jan's health, eventually, against every inclination of her character, turning to whoredom and "breaking the waves" to service fishing ships offshore.

The climax and ending of this enigmatic film can only be described as miraculous, with Bess' prayers finally answered. Highly recommended for those who can take its coarser elements.


1997, Jon Kennedy-