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Film / Breaking the Waves

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Breaking the Waves is a 1996 drama 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 1970s, 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.

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

Breaking the Tropes:

  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Bess at the end. See Bittersweet Ending.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Yes, Bess is dead. But she saved Jan, and few movies end with confirmation of a character ascending to Heaven.
  • Black-and-White Morality: As it's in the Melodrama / Soap Opera tradition, the film's morality pits 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. Some have accused Von Trier of psychologically abusing Watson.
  • Call-Back: The ending of this film is a callback to Ordet. The hero is revived by God when it seems that he is condemned.
  • 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...
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Church Bells, or lack thereof.
  • Children Are Cruel: The group of kids who throw stones at Bess and call her a "tart."
  • Cool Old Guy: A church elder at the wedding, with no lines, gets into a test of manliness with some of Jan's fellow riggers after spotting them chugging and crushing beercans. He matches them with a glass of lemonade.
  • Cruel Mercy:
    • Jan seems to think he's doling this out when he tells Bess to sleep with other men, so that she'll experience love after him.
    • God provides a far clearer and more literal version when after Bess's death, He proves His existence to her and helps her on to a next plane of existence.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: Bess may be "not right in the head", but that ultimately allows her to see to the core of the film's fantastical world.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Discussed in the film. Dodo thinks Jan is "sick in the head" for asking Bess to do what she does, but Jan himself seems to think he's letting her go as a mercy. What is beyond dispute is that Jan goes from basically the nicest man alive to a cruel, spiteful bully after his injury.
  • Driven to Suicide: Jan tries to after his injury, with almost zero mobility, to "Set [Bess] free", but Dodo stops him in time.
  • Evil Cripple: Played for Drama. Jan acts far more cruelly after being paralyzed, but it isn't clear if he's "evil" (as Dodo thinks) or if he's actually trying to do what is best for Bess, in a twisted way.
  • 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.
  • A Glass in the Hand: The old man at the wedding calmly crushes a glass with his bare hand after watching an oil rig worker 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...
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: The tagline of this movie is "Love is a mighty power"; only at the end do we realize how literal this statement is.
  • 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 are 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.
  • Love Redeems: Discussed at great length. Ultimately, it does, but only through Bess's murder.
  • Lighter and Softer: Relative 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. And it also has somewhat happier ending than most of his movies.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Hope you wanted to see Stellan Skarsgard in the buff...
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Bess is, in a way, a dark subversion of the concept, showing how fundamentally flawed the idea of an eccentric, lovable being who ignores her own goals to help her man really is. The archetypal modern MPDG, Amélie, was named after Emily Watson.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Bess and Dodo. Even when Dodo is rude to Bess, she's actually trying to "save" her from the situation Jan put her in.
  • 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.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Crossing over with Alternative Character Interpretation, why does Jan give Bess the ultimatum? Some possibilities: Is he telling the truth when he says he wants her to find a new lover to replace him? Is this an attempt to give Bess the love he can't anymore? Was he genuinely getting off on it? Is he trying to corrupt her, and if so, why? Because he feels he doesn't deserve her? Because her piety makes him dislike her after the cruelty of what's happened to him? Or is he trying to make her hate him or be disgusted by him so that she'll leave him?
  • 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Both of them explore the redemptive power of love and religious faith, represented by their ability to literally bring someone back from the dead.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: The film as a whole is deeply soul-crushing. Bess finds love with Jan, who is paralyzed in a horrible accident; he pushes her away from him, convinces her to have sex with other men even though she doesn't want to, she faces a great deal of prejudice from her small-minded community, and she's horribly murdered by one of her clients when she turns to prostitution. But then...God proves His existence to Bess and redeems her.
  • Talking to Themself: Bess frequently talks to God and then answers herself in "God's" voice.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Bess, which becomes gradually apparent as she sacrifices more and more for Jan, especially when she becomes a prostitute.
  • 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. One slightly more sympathetic interpretation is that, realising that he can never please her sexually again, and, after failing to convince her to take a lover and to commit suicide, he is attempting to use her martyr complex as a means to make her move on from him.
  • Unrequited Love: Dr. Richardson for Bess. He takes it in stride.