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Film: Breaking The Waves

Breaking the Waves is a 1996 film written and directed by Lars von Trier, the first entry of his "Golden Hearts" Trilogy, and the beginning of a radical change in direction for the famously restless filmmaker. Set somewhere in the Highlands in the 1970's, the story concerns Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a naive, borderline simple young woman, who marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a Danish oil rig worker, despite the disapproval of her stern Church Elders. Bess enjoys a brief period of wedded bliss before Jan has to go back to the rig. After he's crippled in a freak accident, Bess becomes obsessed with saving him, even if it means alienating herself from everyone she's ever known. Everything culminates in one of the most unpredictable endings in the History of Film; think you know where it's going? Guess again.

Although not a Dogme 95 film, it makes use of many of those filmmaking principles. Director von Trier stated that the film's melodramatic plot would have been unbearable without the authenticity and gravity that the minimalist presentation provides.


This film provides examples of:

  • Badass Grandpa / Badass Bystander: A church elder at the wedding, with no lines, gets into a test of manliness with some punks after spotting them chugging and crushing beercans. He matches them with a glass of lemonade.
  • Black and White Morality: As it's in the Melodrama / Soap Opera tradition, the film's morality is largely this, with the Incorruptibly Pure Bess pitted against the unbending absolutism of the Church. Dodo, Jan, and Dr. Richardson bring a touch of grey morality, but it's a very light shade thereof.
  • Break the Cutie: Bess. Oh. So. Much.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Dodo does this to the Church Elders at Bess' funeral. Their response is not shown, though one wouldn't have to guess what it was. We'll see if they're still laughing once they hear The Bells...
  • Chekov's Gun: The Church Bells, or lack thereof.
  • The Cloud Cuckoo Lander Was Right
  • Dogme 95: Was going to be the first Dogme movie, but von Trier "wasn't able to resist tinkering with the film's color and technical appearance." He later added non-diagetic music in one scene, and a brief shot of CGI, both of which are against Dogme rules. Nevertheless, it's often mistaken for a true Dogme film, along with the last entry in the "Golden Hearts" Trilogy, Dancer in the Dark.
  • Driven to Suicide: Jan tries to after his injury, with almost zero mobility, to "Set [Bess] free", but Dodo stops him in time.
  • The Fundamentalist: Everyone at Bess' Church, though Bess herself is an interesting variation; she believes completely and unquestioningly in the will of God and the legitimacy of the Bible, but differs with the Church Elders about the meaning of the laws.
  • Genre-Busting: The story is an old-fashioned Melodrama (Though with modern sexual and violent content) shot like a John Cassavetes film, with a Victorian Novel-style Chapter format, forays into Medical Drama and even Crime Drama, ending with the intervention of God Himself. And an hour in there's a wacky Montage set to a T.Rex song.
  • Glass In The Hand: The old man at the wedding calmly crushes a glass with his bare hand after watching some punk kids do the same with a beer can.
  • God: Bess has "Conversations" with Him, she speaking for as if He were talking through her. Whether it really is God speaking through her is never established, though apparently, He really was listening...
  • Holier Than Thou: Everyone at the Church but Bess.
  • Ironic Echo: "You can have me now!"
  • Jerkass: Seeing as it's Lars von Trier, there we going to be a few of these, in this case the Church Elders, much of the townsfolk, even Bess' mother. Dodo and Jan drift towards this at times, but their intentions are good.
  • Lighter and Softer: Is this to the rest of Lars von Trier's filmography. True, it does still have a fair amount of the angst and gloom that defines much of the dour von Trier's oeuvre, especially towards the end, but it's leavened by more humor and exuberance than 90% of his other films.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Hope you wanted to see Stellan Skarsgard in the buff...
  • Mood Whiplash: A painful moment of Bess in a therapy session with Dr. Richardson smash cuts into a montage that wouldn't be out of place in an 80's comedy (And set to "Hot Love" by T.Rex, no less).
  • Nice Guy: Dr. Richardson, a rare character in a Lars von Trier movie. Even after he falls in love with Bess he remains sympathetic, an even rarer occurrence in the notoriously misanthropic filmmaker's work. Jan pre-injury also counts.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Only Bess' mother calls Dodo "Dorothy".
  • Only Sane Man: Dodo, at first glance. Really, Bess.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Emily Watson's Scottish accent is very good, although her vowels are a bit more Welsh than they need to be.
  • The Pollyanna: Bess remains optimistic in spite of the soul-crushing circumstances she finds herself in. She frequently expresses doubts and fear, but her conversations with "God" lift her spirits.
  • The Power of Love: Bess believes that her love has the power to heal and save Jan. Dodo and Dr. Richardson argue against this, to no avail. In the end, they're wrong, and Bess is right.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: An unusual variation as Bess's crippled husband asks her to have sex with other men and then tell him about it.
  • Soap Opera Disease: The exact nature of the brain injury that lays Jan low is never specified.
  • Something Completely Different: After being known primarily for a trilogy of Dystopian Film Noirs and a Medical Drama / Supernatural Soap Opera, Lars comes out with a rough-hewn Melodrama largely though not entirely devoid of the Supernatural leanings of most of his previous work. It set the tone for the rest of his career.
  • Talking to Themself: Bess frequently talks to God and then answers herself in "God's" voice.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Bess.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Jan after his injury. One of the great mysteries of the film is why he issues a Scarpia Ultimatum to Bess.
  • Unrequited Love: Dr. Richardson for Bess. He takes it in stride.
The BoogeymanFilms of the 1990sCandyman
Breaker MorantCreator/The Criterion CollectionBreathless

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