Parents' Guide to

Breaking the Waves

By Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 18+

Gloomy '90s drama has cursing, nudity, mature themes.

Movie R 1996 159 minutes
Breaking the Waves Poster Image

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What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

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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.

Movie Details

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