REVIEW – Breaking the Waves (1996)

FilmJuice have my review of Lars von Trier’s Palme D’Or-winning tragedy Breaking the Waves.

Breaking the Waves tells of a rather innocent young woman from an isolated Scottish religious community who decides to marry a man who is employed on one of the local oil rigs. At first, the couple (played by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgaard) seem perfectly matched as their sex life is nothing short of epic. So profound is the young woman’s passion for her husband that when he has to go back to the oil rig to work, she pines terribly. In fact, she pines so much that she prays for God to return her husband to her side. God appears to answer the young woman’s prayers when a hideous industrial accident paralyses her husband. Unfortunately, because the couple’s relationship is almost exclusively physical, the husband’s inability to have sex with his wife comes to represent a failure of their love and so he encourages her to have sex with other men.

Breaking the Waves is a film about faith. Bess uses her faith in God as a template for her relationship with Jan and because her relationship with God is one of blind, unquestioning and passionate submission, she does not have it in her to deny her heavily-medicated husband when he begins making perverse requests. Bess’s faith in God and Jan is so pronounced that when Jan’s condition deteriorates, she believes that it is because of her lack of faith and so she begins to seek out increasingly violent and degrading men with whom to have sex. The end of the film is gut-wrenching because it proves that Bess was right all along but it also leaves you wondering what kind of God/Husband would demand such blind and self-destructive obedience from those they claim to love?

I very much enjoyed Breaking the Waves and — incredibly rarely for me — I actually teared up at the end of it but my enjoyment of the film in no way diminishes the fact that I regard it as somewhat problematic.

We would all like to believe that art house film provides a viable alternative to the generic and politically dubious output of Hollywood but the truth is that European art film has its own set of well-rehearsed and problematic narratives. Narratives favoured simply by virtue of the fact that most of the people making European art house films come from a particular gender, a particular class and a particular ethnicity. One of the more oppressively ugly stock narratives in art house film involves a beautiful and engaging young woman who winds up getting beaten, humiliated, raped and forced into sex work so that the pathos of her downfall may help the director point an accusing finger at the horrors of the world. Breaking the Waves uses this narrative as does Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Bigas Lunas’ The Ages of Lulu and it also resurfaces (albeit in a more critical and self-aware form) in films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie. How many times do we have to revisit this narrative before people start to realise that it’s rather long in the tooth? How frequently do you see a film in which a man’s descent into sex work mirrors their existential collapse? How many films are there in which a female character sees the horror of the world and responds by becoming a cold-eyed murderer or ruthless business woman? As I say in my review, Breaking the Waves is a brilliantly made and deeply affecting film but the reason it works so well is that there have been literally dozens of films made using the exact same storyline.

Having re-watched Antichrist since watching Breaking the Waves, I am struck by how many of von Trier’s works seem to walk the line between casual prejudice and critical self-analysis. Indeed, many critics of Antichrist accused it of being profoundly misogynistic as the plot revolves around a woman who goes insane after internalising some misogynistic texts she had been studying as part of a PhD. I certainly agree that Antichrist (much like Breaking the Waves) is in dialogue with a western tradition of misogynistic attitudes towards women but both films make it quite clear that misogyny enters the world of the film through the actions of patriarchal men who coerce their wives into acting out misogynistic  life scripts (the deranged screeching harpy in Antichrist and the saintly victim in Breaking the Waves).

It is always tempting to invoke authorial intent in order to collapse the wave function and deposit von Trier’s work on one side or another of the fence but what keeps me returning to his work is precisely this ambiguity, his recognition that horrible attitudes lie buried just below the surface and that it is often incredibly difficult to work out whether one is doing the right thing or perpetuating blind privilege and prejudice. I have long been of the opinion that the art house film scene needs a groundswell of popular feminist criticism to challenge the out-dated attitudes and tropes that are blindly reproduced in film after film but I genuinely have no idea what the social justice movement would make of a filmmaker like von Trier.



  1. When I watched Breaking the Waves, I kept on getting thrown out of it because the music used at the beginning of each chapter sounded slightly off, like someone impersonating the original artist and not the original artist themselves.


  2. You have surely noticed that in many “B” movies there is a female protagonist (or several) who absolutely refuses to play victim… and triumphs over adversity (and/or patriarchy) through her own actions. This would never happen in a typical European Arthouse film. (But why?)


  3. Interesting point Ian… I don’t think they’re cover versions but they may be alternate arrangements or less familiar bits from famous songs. That kind of licensing costs an absolute fortune.


  4. Hi AR :-)

    It’s not yet that bad… there are a lot of art house films that do feature empowered women. Having said that, the fallen woman is a trope that is both over-used and used uncritically. Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie is an exception to the rule as it completely deconstructs the trope and spins it into a story about female independence and non-conformity.


  5. I have been reading John Gardner’s “On Moral Fiction.” In short, it has had a profound effect on the way that I view the many imperatives of creating art. I think that Lars Van Trier falls into the trap that he cautions against in the book: “The lost artist… either [puts] all his money on texture…or he puts all his money on some easily achieved or faked structure.” If what you are saying is true, he has done both in this movie.


  6. I certainly recognise that failing… A lot of art films do brilliant work on texture but fail to back it up with substantial ideas (one reason for this is that you can learn how to do texture in film school but you can’t learn how to come up with your own substantial ideas).

    A nice way of encapsulating my views von Trier would be a Poe’s Law: Any director who engages in oblique criticism of social attitudes is indistinguishable from a director endorsing those attitudes.

    Von Trier has made a number of films that touch on the issue of gender and he’s gone a lot further than most male directors in subjecting his own ideas to examination but the analysis is so oddly phrased that it’s difficult to work out whether he’s trying to exorcise and critique his own sexist ideas or whether he’s actually endorsing those attitudes. The same principle applies to the Wolf of Wall Street in which Scorsese holds a fun-house mirror up to the culture of Wall Street but because he doesn’t provide the film with an obvious moral centre, it seems like he’s making the characters out to be heroes.

    Von Trier’s reputation does absolutely nothing to help us as he is both incredibly honest about his personal failings and quite happy to play with those failings in a way that provokes other people. I remember his being interviewed about Antichrist by a female journalist and she wanted to accuse him of misogyny and rather than pointing out that her analysis was flawed (and it undoubtedly was) he started making jokes about how he needed a spanking.


  7. I’ve seen THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and I see Jonathan’s point about making out creepy characters as heroes — though Scorsese’s ambivalence about gangsters (of any kind) has always been present.

    But did you notice the closing image of that moronic audience, listening to Belfort’s “moneymaking seminar” with slack-jawed attention? Maybe these are meant to be the true “villains” of the story — the mass of ordinary people who allow creeps like Belfort to go on doing what he does.

    There is that problem summed up in the phrase “The bad guy always gets the best lines” — i.e. decent characters can so easily be dull, and indecent characters easily provide conflict, tension and transgression.

    (Side note: If you have ever tried writing fiction, I can assure you that nothing is harder to write about than positive things like peace, contentment, happiness and decent people.)


  8. I think the point is that we let these charismatic scoundrels have their way with us… a non-dysfunctional society would identify these people and prevent them from acquiring status and power but our society rewards them.

    I’m not surprised that nice people are difficult to write about… they’re difficult to read about too! :-)


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