A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Breaking the Waves is a dark 1996 film that has explicit sexual situations and a heartless religiosity at the center. Danish director Lars Von Trier's lengthy movie looks at the danger (and perhaps good) that can result when unforgiving religion, mental instability, and sexual obsession mix. Female and male full frontal nudity are featured. An oil rig worker is paralyzed by an accident at work. Medical procedures are shown. An innocent turns to sex with strangers to please her disabled husband. Adults smoke tobacco and marijuana and drink alcohol. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," "come," and "prick." An invalid tries to kill himself. A man tries to rape a woman, but she escapes. Not for kids.
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What's the story?
BREAKING THE WAVES is set on a harsh Scottish island where a strict Calvinist sect sets the moral and social standards. The movie feels as if it's set hundreds of years ago until cars, oil rigs, and radios appear and set us firmly in the 1970s. The religion is so joyless the congregation has taken down the bells. The backward thinking that relegates women to lower status, that bars them from speaking in church, and punishes females more harshly for varying from church principles, permeates the plot. The church and God himself are characters here. Bess (Emily Watson in her first screen role) is a woman of limited intellectual capacity with a warm and giving heart. Emotionally fragile, she had fallen apart years before when her brother died. His widow, a caring nurse named Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), appreciates Bess's goodness and loves her deeply. To the elders' disapproval, Bess marries an outsider, a Scandinavian oil rigger (Stellan Skarsgard) called Jan. When a work accident paralyzes Jan from the neck down, Bess is inconsolable but finds a purpose when he requests she remind him of their love by having sex with other men and describing it to him. She balks, but after conversations with "God" (she speaks his lines to herself in a low voice) she becomes convinced that she can bring Jan back to able-bodied health through such a sacrifice, despite transgressing many church rules. Dressing like a prostitute, she avails herself to sadistic sailors. She is nearly raped. Then, learning Jan is declining and after another chat with God, she returns to the rapist. Her demise, the movie suggests, is linked to Jan's immediate full recovery. The church elders at her funeral dismiss her as a sinner consigned to hell, but loud bells ring -- in heaven, no less -- for her soul.
Is it any good?
This is a well-made and widely acclaimed film by Lars von Trier, a talented director-writer whose unusual outlook sets his work apart. The Kingdom, his 1994 Danish supernatural miniseries about weird doings at a hospital, was riveting, shocking, and hilarious. Breaking the Waves is just as black and obsessive but far less funny. The theme in common is that we mortals just don't know how things work. In von Trier's universe, forces beyond our knowledge are at work. This is no endorsement of organized religion, but it is far from a dismissal. The question to ask is does a viewer want to spend 159 minutes watching the tortured sexual and emotional writhings of a mentally unstable woman who talks to God? The audience for this dark movie will probably be understandably self-limiting. Emily Watson as Bess is inspiring and her performance won her a best actress Oscar nomination. But this will be a rough slog for many viewers. During the film's first 50 minutes, when Jan is able-bodied and the couple's love and sex life are happy, the movie is still weighed down by the harshness of the island climate, its joyless and rigorous religion, the strict God who talks to Bess, and Bess's tenuous hold on self-control and sanity.
But in comparison to what happens after Jan is injured, those early years, months, days, and minutes of this very long movie look like a frothy romantic comedy. While the action is absorbing in the same way a ghastly car accident might seem to rubberneckers, the movie is far too long and unconvincing in its basics. Bess is generous and caring, but she has the maturity of an 8-year-old and it strains believability that any grown man would marry her. The movie has several endings, and each successive one adds to the irritation. At first it's suggested that religion killed Bess. She listened to God, soiled herself by grudgingly having sex with brutal strangers, then died of the injuries. But no, the movie goes on: for her sacrifice, God saves Jan. Bess is definitely the heroine, and there's a brief suggestion that "goodness" killed her. On the other hand, her death does suggest that God favors women abasing themselves for the favored sex -- men. So, maybe, it seems, the misogynistic church elders were right all along.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what it means to sacrifice for those we love. How does Breaking the Waves exemplify such selflessness?
The movie suggests that conventional standards for judging people might not always be the most reliable ones. Bess calls herself "stupid," having been called that all her life, but whatever her intellectual limitations, do you think she proves her worth as she models complete loyalty and devotion to her sick husband?
Is all the sex and nudity necessary to the story? Why or why not?
- In theaters: November 13, 1996
- On DVD or streaming: July 25, 2000
- Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge
- Director: Lars von Trier
- Studio: Artisan Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 159 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: for strong graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some violence
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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