PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Breaking the Waves' Has the Touch of the Divine

If only for its artistic value, Breaking the Waves will always be a reminder that we can come in touch with the divine even when we’re unsure of its existence.

Breaking the Waves

Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Year: 1996
Release date: 2014-04-15
“I would love to be religious, but I’ve tried…”

-- Lars Von Trier

In recent years Lars Von Trier has been extremely open about his cinematic influences, particularly the debts his oeuvre owes to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky (to whom he dedicated his 2011 film Melancholia) and Ingmar Bergman. Like the two other European masters, Von Trier seems keen on getting to the essence of what conforms the human soul, something particularly interesting because the director himself is an atheist. His parents were, according to him, “atheists by belief” and he grew up in a household where the image of god was utterly non-existent. This makes his films a mystery upon themselves, because they all seem to be profoundly soulful, and even his darkest projects often have characters who usually see flashes of the divine within the misery of their existence.

In the “Golden Heart Trilogy”, Von Trier explored soulfulness through characters who are so gentle and good that the world seems to take pleasure in destroying them. In Breaking the Waves, which also happens to be the initial volume in the trilogy, Von Trier focuses on the perils of fanaticism as he tells the story of Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a young Scottish woman with a history of mental issues, who takes comfort in the conversations she has with god (who replies to her with her own voice). A member of the local church, a conservative Calvinist congregation, Bess seems not to care what the world thinks of her, which she proves by marrying oil-rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), who spends most of his time at the rig, leaving Bess alone, asking god to bring her husband back.

When Jan is away they share their sexual fantasies through short phone calls in which Bess seems to be using the very same tone she uses when god replies to her. Then one day Jan suffers a terrible accident that leaves him paralysed. He is flown back to the mainland, leading Bess to believe the accident was her fault, because it’s what she asked god to give her. After attempting suicide, her husband asks one favor of her; to find a lover with whom to have the sexual relations she won’t be able to have with him any more, and to come back to him with stories of her sexual encounters. Heartbroken, Bess spirals down into some sort of combination between terrifying madness and religious ecstasy and decides to perform the ultimate sacrifice to help her wash away her sins.

Peculiar for its naturalistic setting, acting and texture, Breaking the Waves is one of the landmark films of the '90s. Sexually frank, explicit and often tough to sit through, the film announced the arrival of Von Trier as a master conjurer of images, who was unafraid to see spirituality in the face and confront it. The Danish director seemed to have come from the school of his legendary countryman Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also found parallels between mental illness and the divine.

What still remains breathtaking to see is Von Trier’s sympathetic approach to his subjects, especially when it comes to Bess. While inferior directors would have approached her with cynicism and a cruel smirk, Von Trier seems to come from a place of love. He is often accused of misogyny for the tasks he imposes on his actress, but nobody watching Breaking the Waves can say that the director looks at Bess as someone made to be mocked and judged.

For someone who seems so insecure about his own role in the universe, Von Trier allows his characters to exist within worlds of their own. If this is part of some god complex, we can’t really know, because the film doesn’t indulge itself with grandiose philosophical statements or discourses. In fact, its climax is one of the most surprising moments in all of contemporary cinema for both its boldness and mystery.

Breaking the Waves remains a film that seems to reveal new layers on every viewing, at first you might be mesmerized by the courageous work of Watson who doesn't give a single false step as Bess (a role originally offered to Helena Bonham Carter). Later, you might be engulfed by the film’s aesthetics which seem to draw pleasure out of pointing out the lack of realism found in even the most “realistic” stories put on film and on different days you might just give yourself in fully to the potent melodrama reminiscent of classic Hollywood. If only for its artistic value, Breaking the Waves will always be a reminder that we can come in touch with the divine even when we’re unsure of its existence.

Breaking the Waves has been given the Criterion Collection treatment and it might be one of its finest releases to date. Presented in a new 4k digital restoration, the film showcases Von Trier’s fine eye for detail and composition. A rich roster of bonus materials includes interviews with the cast, excerpts from Watson’s audition tape plus deleted scenes and a commentary with the director. All we can do now is hope Criterion will release the rest of the “Golden Heart” trilogy...


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.