Breaking the Rules: Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the waves is more than a love story but more than anything is that , and powerful one , one of the best I have seen on the big screen, Lars von Trier's best film up to date.                 


It’s the first and best film in Lars von Trier´s Golden Heart Trilogy (1998´s “The Idiots” and 2000´s “Dancer in the Dark” complete the trilogy), and his first film since signing the Dogme 95 pact with director Thomas Vinterberg. 


The '70s, North-West Scotland: despite opposition from the Calvinist community in which she lives, Bess (Watson) is sufficiently sure God looks kindly on her love for oil-rig worker Jan (Skarsgård) that she marries him. When he returns to the rig, however, she can barely tolerate his absence, and prays for his return - which he does, paralysed and perhaps brain-damaged by an accident. Distraught that his wife's brief sexual bliss is over, Jan suggests she take lovers and describe her liaisons afterwards, so they might still enjoy sex by proxy. Bess consents reluctantly - until, that is, she comes to believe that the sacrifices she's making will restore Jan's health, or at least save his life. 

Breaking the Waves: Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Waves is a movie that broke the rules, exploding so many norms of mainstream cinema that its very existence—not to mention its vast popularity and critical acclaim—seems almost as astonishing as the miracle that gives the story its visionary ending. On one level, Lars von Trier’s masterpiece is a story of amour fou between a man and a woman whose blazing passion puts them instantly at odds with her puritanical community. It’s also a blistering critique of the repression and denial that faith-based moralizers confuse with principles and decency—and a penetrating exploration of the meaning of goodness in the modern world.

The epilogue of Breaking the Waves is impossible to describe—it must literally be seen to be believed—but it grows organically and coherently from everything that’s come before it, bringing the film to a bold and brilliant conclusion. First, it returns to the story’s main philosophical concern, pre­senting an inquest where the kindly Dr. Richardson is required to state his professional view of the psychological condition that led Bess to her doom. Earlier, he admits, he saw her as immature, unstable, obsessive, even psychotic. But in hindsight, his verdict is very different. “If you were to ask me again to write the conclusion,” he says, “then I might use a word like good.” That is clearly von Trier’s diagnosis as well, and after witnessing her story, we are likely to share it.

``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 unto him.
Not 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.


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