“Breaking the Waves” is emotionally and spiritually challenging,
hammering at conventional morality with the belief that God not only sees all,
but understands a great deal more than we give Him credit for. It tells the
story of Bess, a simple woman of childlike naivete, who sacrifices herself to
sexual brutality to save the life of the man she loves. Is she a sinner? The
grim bearded elders of her church think so. But Bess is the kind of person
Jesus was thinking of, I believe, when he suffered the little children to come
movie takes place in the 1970s, in a remote northern Scottish village. Bess
(Emily Watson), a sweet-faced and trusting girl, is “not quite right in the
head,” and her close-knit community is not pleased by her decision to marry Jan
(Stellan Skarsgard), who works on one of the big oil rigs in the North Sea. But
she loves Jan too much that when the helicopter bringing him to the wedding is
delayed, she hits him in a fury. He is a tall, gentle man with a warm smile,
and lets her flail away before embracing her in his big arms.
is a virgin, but so eager to learn the secrets of marriage that she accosts her
new husband in the powder room at the reception after the ceremony, telling him
eagerly, “You can love me now!” And then, “What do I do?” The miracle of sexual
expression transforms her, and she is grateful to God for having given her Jan
and his love and his body.
downstairs at the ceremony, Jan's shipmate and Bess' grandfather scowl at one
another; the shipmate crushes a beer can, and the grandfather picks up a
lemonade glass and breaks it in his bloody hand.
learn a little about Bess, who had a breakdown when her brother died. Her
closest friend is her sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), a nurse who stays
in the remote district mostly because of her. Bess belongs to a strict sect
where women do not speak in church, and the sermon over the body at a funeral
might be, “You are a sinner and will find your place in hell.” Bess'
grandfather observes sourly, “We have no bells in our church.” Jan is
critically injured in an accident on the rig. He is paralyzed from the neck
down, and the local doctor tells Bess he may never walk again. “You don't know
Jan!” she says fiercely. One day Jan asks her to find a man and make love to
him, “for my sake. And then tell me about it.” Bess does not like this idea,
but she does what Jan asks. Dodo is enraged: “Are you sleeping with other men
to feed his sick fantasies? His head's full of scars--he's up to his eyeballs
in drugs.” It is indeed never made quite clear why Jan, a good man, has made
this request of the woman he loves. That is not the point. The point is that
Bess, with her fierce faith, believes that somehow her sacrifice can redeem her
husband and even cure him. As his condition grows worse, her behavior grows
more desperate; she has herself taken out to a big ship where even the port
prostitutes refuse to go, because of the way they have been treated there.
film contains many surprising revelations, including a cosmic one at the end,
which I will leave you to discover for yourself. It has the kind of raw power,
the kind of unshielded regard for the force of good and evil in the world that
we want to shy away from. It is easier sometimes to wrap ourselves in sentiment
and pious platitudes, and forget that God created nature “bloody in tooth and
nail.” Bess does not have our ability to rationalize and evade, and fearlessly
offers herself to God as she understands him.
performance by Emily Watson reminds me of what Truffaut said about James Dean,
that as an actor he was more like an animal than a man, proceeding according to
instinct instead of thought and calculation. It is not a grim performance and
is often touched by humor and delight, which makes it all the more touching, as
when Bess talks out loud in two-way conversations with God, speaking both
voices--making God a stern adult and herself a trusting child. Her church
banishes her, and little boys in the village throw stones at her, but she tells
Dodo, “God gives everyone something to be good at. I've always been stupid, but
I'm good at this.” “Breaking the Waves” was written and directed by Lars von
Trier, from Denmark, who makes us wonder what kinds of operas Nietzsche might
have written. He finds the straight pure line through the heart of a story, and
is not concerned with what cannot be known: This movie does not explain Jan's
cruel request of his wife, because Bess does not question it. It shows people
who care about her, such as the sister-in-law and the local doctor, and others
who do not: religious bean-counters like the bearded church elders. They
understand nothing about their Christianity except for unyielding rules they
have memorized, which means they do not understand Christianity at all. They
talk to God as if they expect him to listen, and learn. At the end of the film
they get their response in a great savage ironic peal.
many movies like this get made, because not many filmmakers are so bold, angry
and defiant. Like many truly spiritual films, it will offend the Pharisees.
Here we have a story that forces us to take sides, to ask what really is right
and wrong in a universe that seems harsh and indifferent. Is religious belief
only a consolation for our inescapable destination in the grave? Or can faith
give the power to triumph over death and evil? Bess knows.