Film Review: BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)

Film Review: BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)

Sep 16, 2018

IMDb: Breaking The Waves (1996)
Director: Lars von Trier
Stars: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge

Denmark’s resident l’enfant terrible, Lars von Trier started his filmmaking efforts with his first short in 1967 at age 11. von Trier didn’t become an international art house name until nearly 30 years later. With 6 features under his belt, he would take the festival circuit by storm, winning the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and cement his reputation as one of cinema’s most unflinchingly unapologetic innovative filmmakers to explore the darker side of human nature.


Breaking the Waves is set in the early 1970’s Scottish highlands. The film explores the relationship between Bess (Emily Watson), a small town child like woman who is set to marry Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a town outsider whose atheist beliefs cause severe disapproval within Bess’ church dominated community.

Bess converses with God and believes he is speaking back (her own voice answering herself as God). Jan is an oil rig worker, which causes Bess to feel like she cannot live without him, whenever he is away, recoiling into an infantile clinging. Jan becomes injured in a freak accident aboard his rig and becomes paralyzed. Bess believes the accident is her fault for praying to God for his return. Jan who can no longer provide sexual relations to Bess asks her to seek out sex with other men. Bess, through her her undying love for Jan does so in awkward fashion and eventually pays the soul crushing price of her mortal demise for her actions. Bleak, brutal, desperate, beautiful. Lars von Trier’s testament to the power of love, and his response to religion. Director von Trier isn’t afraid to display the visually brutal aspects of this film to the viewer. It’s all on display, and it pays in spades.

Breaking the Waves was shot in 35mm, transferred to videotape, then back to 35mm to achieve a 70’s documentary feel. Lars von Trier utilized a large amount of hand held camera work (including one of the best hand held 360 degree whip pan shots ever seen in cinema). Breaking the Waves is the first film in his “Golden Hearts Trilogy“(followed by The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark) and remains his most powerful to date, and an absolute must for fans of his work.

The Criterion Collection has released a dual format version, with the early version of the film’s first chapter’s song being re inserted. David Bowie’sSpace Oddity” is now back in favor of the DVD’s use of Elton John’sYour Song“.

My opinion stands that this is the masterwork of von Trier. The effect this film has is rare. A love story that demolishes your soul, makes you rethink your world to the point that brutality is tear inducing. Von Trier is a rare one, from story to camera to mis en scene, this one takes you by the heart strings and curb stomps you.