‘Breaking the Waves’ is my all time favorite movie, and this Lars Von Trier masterpiece catapulted him onto the world stage as a writer-director to be reckoned with. Powerhouse performances by the actors Emily Watson as Bess and Stellan Skarsgard as Jan exquisitely highlight the dilemma of good and the bad.
No other movie questions as poignantly and pointedly both the expansiveness and the limitations of religion – the inherent truth behind the seemingly virtuous and brow rising sinful code of conduct and the thin line between the profane and the pure. It at once jolts the audience physically, emotionally and spiritually, to question our age-old beliefs of morality and immorality. Nevertheless the brilliance of the film lies not in forming new belief systems but in questioning the ones that have been instilled in us by our religious institutions and their followers, in this case the Church and its puritanical and rigid priests.
The story unfolds in a remote village in Scotland where the dull and austere climate is reflected in the stony presence of the characters. Bess is a sweet young girl who hails from a rigid family whose only social engagement, as like all the other inhabitants of the village, is the gathering at the church. Their closed knit community is not too happy to learn about Bess’s choice of husband, Jan. Jan works in the oil rig and his jovial and fun loving nature is completely opposite to that of the villagers’ stone cold attitude towards most things in life. Its left unsaid as to why Jan is attracted to Bess, an unpolished village girl who is ‘not quite right in the head’. Perhaps it is just that attribute that brings him close to her. On the other hand Bess who has been raised under strict puritanical codes is all too keen to explore the mysteries of marriage and sex.
After a few days of blissful married life, Jan returned to the Rig. Bess went back to what she knew best – praying diligently in the church. She prays to God to bring back Jan as soon as possible and that he never leaves her side again. As is often said, be careful of what you wish for, her wishes were turned into a cruel travesty of fate when Jan returns after a near fatal accident that renders him paralyzed from head to toe. The tension goes up a few notches when Jan urges his newly wedded wife to have sex with another man and narrate it back to him. What motivates him to place such a deplorable request to the already traumatized wife is left to the audience’s imagination but the devoted wife never asks him why and he never bothers to explain.
Bess’s love comes under microscope when such a demand is made. Driven by love and only his best interest in her heart, she does exactly what is told of her. Soon we see her as an apathetic hooker, a far cry from her earlier self. Yet she does not leave her pious ways. Her two-way conversations with God almighty are heart wrenching, where he tells her to do what is the best for her. Her church banishes her, the little kids throw stones at but she is unconquerable in her faith. She tells Dodo, her sister in law, “God gives everyone something to be good at. I’ve always been stupid, but I’m good at this.”
The underlying truth was that Bess, fierce in her faith, believes wholeheartedly that her sacrifices will redeem Jan from all his pains and he will get better. As his condition deteriorates, she becomes even more desperate; she goes to the big ship, where even the prostitutes don’t dare to tread. The remnants of her being is torn and devoured in such a manner that she never comes back alive.
The ending is cosmic, where Jan gets cured, as Bess is lowered into her grave and condemned to hell as she had sinned. No bells toll for sinners (but then there are no bells in this Church). Jan steals Bess’s coffin since he knows that Bess’s entire existence was for his survival alone, and he would not have her final resting place next to condemned souls. Far away from land and in the mid sea he submerges her coffin into the waters so that she might finally get some peace. It’s the miraculous tolling of church bells at this instance that makes the audience numb. There are no questions left in the mind that even in her perceived sin she attained sainthood.
The film has many surprising revelations and a kind or raw power and an unshielded regard for the forces of good and evil. Its always easy for rational minds to wrap themselves around religious beliefs and look down upon another who strays forgetting that we are human because we have weaknesses and we are human because God made us bloodied from head to toe. Bess stands out because she cannot rationalize the way we do. She chooses to embrace her God, uncomplainingly and fearlessly, in the way she perceived him and as she unflailingly thanked him for “the greates gift, the gift of love”
I leave you all with the trailer of ‘Breaking the Waves’