Breaking the Waves (1996) opens with a wedding, which is never good news for those inhabiting a fictional world. The primary characteristic of old comedy, as a binary of tragedy, was the happy nuptial finish, and canny writers have long been inverting that trope. When a novel or film opens with a wedding, life takes a grim turn after the confetti falls, and the halcyon promise of the post-altar ever-after is exposed as illusion. Individuals are crushed, sometimes by the very institution they celebrate, and sometimes by larger forces. In Breaking the Waves, the main characters get it from both sides. Lars Von Trier subverts comedic tradition, allowing his newlyweds a week of milk and honey before reality shatters the idyll of Bess, a naïve Highland girl, and Jan, a Swede who works on an oil rig in the North Sea. If the couple’s only fault is loving each other too much, accident and community exploit that fault, which generates a unique anti-comedy that not only holds up, a dozen years on, but has gained an arcane power over time.
Von Trier cast Emily Watson as Bess because she could look like “a bit of a saint and a bit of a clown.” It’s a difficult essence that Watson emanates from scene one, where she waits on the mainland for Jan’s chopper to arrive, her cheap wedding gown twisted by wind. Her conflicted reaction to the groom — a saintly and clownish reaction — tells the viewer not to expect a straightforward heroine or relationship. Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) sets down in a cacophony of machinery that breaks the stillness of Bess’ village. His chopper drowns out words and represents the violence of their passion, and his blustery entrance characterizes him at once as the outsider, gigantically out of place among the dour Calvinist villagers who try to recuperate their peace with a hymn. By marrying Bess, Jan binds himself to a bitter little town soured by tradition and hive-mind; by marrying Jan, Bess manifests what little difference is allowed her by a community that insists its members — particularly its women — behave according to script.
The wedding scene is arresting because, even so early on, we understand this much about the couple and the hostile little town. Bess is either indifferent or oblivious to her partial transgression. She enjoys her day and insists that Jan take her virginity in a lavishly wallpapered bathroom over the wedding hall. Jan revels in his own transgression, accompanied by his rig-worker pals who provoke the teetotalers with their brought-in beer and exuberance (look for the underappreciated Jean-Marc Barr as one of Jan’s friends). Bess’ devoted sister-in-law (Katrin Cartlidge) tries to bind the room together with a bland, conventional toast, but Von Trier’s hand-held camera susses out the fractures, lingering on tell-tale faces that tighten or loosen in focus as moods evolve. He uses this technique throughout the film — when attitudes are ambiguous, faces blur, and the effect is penetrating. Ambiguity is a narrative key.
Camera-work, impressionist editing, and a suffuse, natural lighting are the only recognizable Dogme traits of Breaking the Waves, which broke most of the Manifesto’s rules. But never mind — its realism remains stark and haunting. Von Trier’s lens suits the Highland location, a field of limed white walls, dried heather, and characterless interiors. It makes the most of a cold Northern light and conveys a real sense of the weather. Rock ballads are sampled in the landscape vistas that announce the movie’s chapter breaks, but sound in its actual scenes is largely ambient: voice, wind, feet on gravel, hands on skin, and the pumping of a hospital respirator. The squall of a helicopter or a Scottish jig is jarring — Bess’ village is stifled by a quiet that feels anything but peaceful. It’s rigorously enforced by the local minister (Jonathan Hackett), elders and busybodies, and it’s artificial and unproductive. The ascetic Calvinists won’t even indulge in the stimulation of a church-bell, whose absence is regretted by Bess and the rig-men, and whose ultimate supernatural appearance symbolizes a sensual brand of spirituality liberated from the constraint of organized religion.
Breaking the Waves benefits from its production design, but its worth is measured most of all in its story-telling and performances. Watson is uncompromising as Bess and very complex: the remarks of other characters confuse our impression of her (is she “hysterical” or “susceptible” or just too “good”?). Her performance — appropriate for a “Golden Heart Trilogy” piece — combines joy and pain, lunacy and sense, tantrums and enchantment. And Skarsgård is just as fine — his Jan is one for the record. A lesser actor might have reduced the role to type or may not have dared to let the character love Bess with such a light. Skarsgård’s Jan exhibits an uneasy masculinity that’s both real as grit and ideal. He’s a traditional emblem when, after the celebration, he attaches a string of cans to his ass, picks up his bride, and runs off with her, big as a truck. But he’s also unapologetically uxorious and doesn’t hide his demonstrations. Bess’ fascination with his body isn’t just centered on the curiosity of a penis — it goes deeper than anatomy and investigates the novel human warmth Jan has carried into the village with his arrival. Skarsgård and Watson are well supported by the equally capable Cartlidge and Hackett, both of whom actually look the way their characters behave: Cartlidge’s pointed face suggests the matronly surrender and the efficiency of Dodo, and Hackett’s posture exudes the chill of a cultural tyranny much more persuasively than physical size.
Most readers must, by now, be familiar with the film’s provocative premise: when Jan is paralyzed on the job and brought home (a “Monkey’s Paw” response to Bess’ prayer for his return), Bess agrees to have sex with other men and recount her experiences. Jan, who lives for love as much as she does, and who’s unable to convince her to leave him for an able man, resorts to a vicarious form of sensuality. But Bess’ liaisons don’t bring her any pleasure — they are in every sense sacrificial, and she begins to believe that each retelling has a curative power. As Jan defies medical odds, Bess turns so-called selfish transgression into an act of generosity, and what looks until now like a straightforward feminist text grows complicated. Von Trier has, after all, gone out of his way to create a sort of ‘manifesto against tranquility,’ in which Bess questions the quiet and the patriarchal rules that confine her. She asks why women aren’t allowed to speak in church, why her role in life is to wait in the car or by the hearth for the return of men, and why selflessness is a woman’s only virtue. Elders, including her mother (Sandra Voe), are outraged whenever Bess demands more out of life — whenever she demonstrates a degree of personal happiness or acts out in an effort to retain it. Others call her “not right in the head,” but Jan disagrees, arguing she “just wants it all” and encouraging Bess’ break-out. The film isn’t kind to authority figures (it’s evident in the way the minister and elders are framed, and in their unpleasant faces and actions), and it suggests that Bess’ problems are rooted in a culture that has infantilized its women; she is our feminist cipher set in opposition to other women who lack the gumption to revolt.
When Jan makes his odd request, we’re tempted at first to approve — the myth that love and virtue are localized in the body is challenged. Jan uses the language of the patriarchy to convince Bess (“it’s for my sake, not yours”), because he understands her conditioning (freedom’s elusive until our jailor unlocks our door with his key). If the Calvinists won’t grant Bess a divorce, Jan reasons, he, at least, can encourage her to have other lovers. His request is followed by a shot of Bess in a swing, taken at an angle that makes it look as if she’s flying over her village. There’s a promise of liberty in that shot, a gift given her by a husband who loves her enough to let her keep living a fully sensual life. But it’s not only the village’s narrow sense of morality Bess has to overcome, or that of most viewers, who are still instructed to privilege monogamy and female chastity. Bess also has to overcome the religious guilt and sexual shame that’s been beaten into her, something few of us can do. It’s almost axiomatic, then, that her attempt to bust out of the mould will fail — that it will be read as something she does for another, never for herself. Sex outside of marriage has been bestialized by her community, so Bess can’t allow it to be good — she chooses an unattractive man in a bar when she might have had anyone, and she actively seeks out rapists.
The more Bess pukes or cries or bleeds in the company of other men, the more unsettling the text becomes — this isn’t a tale about a woman’s liberation from repressive sexual mores, after all. It’s a brutal love story: Bess loves Jan too much to desire other men, so she makes sex-without-Jan as undesirable as possible and validates her despicable upbringing. Our series introduction remarks that Von Trier’s better films defy classification, and Breaking the Waves — a masterwork — benefits from such ambiguity. It’s a film that can be read as a feminist scream or a moldy bit of Christian-tinged misogyny, and it’s more meaningful for it, because it forces us to consider the thing from all angles. But its condemnation of tradition is unflinching, and its portrayal of a woman conditioned by church, patriarchy, and slut-shaming to the point of self-destruction is what stands out the most, for some, who see a battle between old-fashioned men (embodied by village elders and Udo Kier’s sadistic sailor) and New Men (the rig workers associated with technology, and the literal translation of Jan’s last name). The New Men, at worst, see a Magdalene where others see a tart; at best, they can detach a woman’s worth from the skin between her legs and honor her as a person in life and death. The two groups tug over Bess, assisted by a doctor (Adrian Rawlins) who functions as an intermediate sort of male, assuring Bess her moods are normal enough, at first, then joining the call to lock her down. It’s too bad that her moral strictures and our own — so evidently reflected in Jan’s paralysis — condemn her, and it’s too hard to ignore Von Trier’s ultimate celebration of a woman beatified by personal sacrifice, or punished for breaking the rules, or made insane by freedom. There is no one way to read this film, and Breaking the Waves doesn’t get its due if we don’t revel in its contradictions. — Ranylt Richildis
Related: The Kingdom retrospective
(Originally published on In Review Online on November 25, 2009, as part of a Lars Von Trier “directrospective.”)