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Breaking the Waves (1996)

R  |   |  Drama, Romance  |  13 November 1996 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.9/10 from 45,663 users   Metascore: 76/100
Reviews: 221 user | 114 critic | 28 from

Oilman Jan is paralyzed in an accident. His wife, who prayed for his return, feels guilty; even more, when Jan urges her to have sex with another.


(as Lars Von Trier)


(as Lars Von Trier) , , 1 more credit »
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Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 47 wins & 19 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Dr. Richardson
Jonathan Hackett ...
Sandra Voe ...
Mikkel Gaup ...
Phil McCall ...
Robert Robertson ...
Desmond Reilly ...
An Elder
Sarah Gudgeon ...
Coroner (as Finley Welsh)


Drama set in a repressed, deeply religious community in the north of Scotland, where a naive young woman named Bess McNeil meets and falls in love with Danish oil-rig worker Jan. Bess and Jan are deeply in love but, when Jan returns to his rig, Bess prays to God that he returns for good. Jan does return, his neck broken in an accident aboard the rig. Because of his condition, Jan and Bess are now unable to enjoy a sexual relationship and Jan urges Bess to take another lover and tell him the details. As Bess becomes more and more deviant in her sexual behavior, the more she comes to believe that her actions are guided by God and are helping Jan recover. Written by Jonathan Broxton <>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Love is a mighty power.


Drama | Romance

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for strong graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some violence | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:




Release Date:

13 November 1996 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Contra viento y marea  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office

Opening Weekend:

$110,741 (USA) (22 November 1996)


$4,040,691 (USA) (2 May 1997)

Company Credits

Production Co:

, ,  »
Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


| (director's cut)

Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


The first film in Lars von Trier's "Golden Heart" trilogy in which the heroines remain naïve despite their actions. The two other parts are The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). See more »


(at around 7 mins) When Bess is in bed with her sister-in-law, the blanket is on, then off, Bess' shoulder. See more »


[first lines]
Bess McNeill: His name is Jan.
The Minister: I do not know him.
Bess McNeill: [coyly] He's from the lake.
The Minister: You know we do not favor matrimony with outsiders.
An Elder: Can you even tell us what matrimony is?
Bess McNeill: It's when two people are joined in God.
See more »


Referenced in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013) See more »


A Whiter Shade Of Pale
Written by Keith Reid and Gary Brooker
Performed by Procol Harum
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

See more (Spoiler Alert!) »

User Reviews

8 November 2004 | by See all my reviews

Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves is the kind of film that makes me proud to be a film-goer and exceeds anything I could have possibly expected from the man who made Element of Crime. That film had some clever experimentation (and so does this one) but this film is the kind that's beauty and power echoes in your mind hours after you've watched it. This is a flabbergasting work of art that portrays a woman's quest to please God and does so with the complexity and emotional power of a Bergman film (not to mention the fact that the film portrays a woman's intense suffering in world sternly ruled by men with the power of a Dreyer film). If von Trier made nothing else of any merit for the rest of his career, if all he did was make marginally interesting film experiments, I wouldn't hesitate to call him a great filmmaker on the soul basis of this film. Anyway, you get the picture… The film stars Emily Watson as Bess, a shy and neurotic girl who is filled with joy to be with her new husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard who is exceptional). When Jan is paralyzed after an accident at the oilrig he works in, he is in danger of losing his life. He convinces Bess to see other people and Bess wants nothing more than to make him happy and to prove to God that she loves him. After some disastrous complications, Bess is led to believe that she can please God and save Jan's life by having numerous sexual encounters with strangers in town. This sounds like a grungy tale, but von Trier tells it with such humanism and focus on his themes that we never feel like he is rubbing our faces in drear. And Watson is delightful, frightening, and heartbreaking as a woman who will stop at nothing to please those around her. Her one-sided conversations with God (in which she looks up in the air submissively and pleas and then looks down with a deep voice of wrath and scolds) are both funny and sad, not to mention the fact that they reveal seemingly endless amounts of details about who she is. The film is made with a hand-held camera and a visually stunning solarized style. This style does not make the movie; it just adds richness to each scene in the way it gives each face such shadowy texture. In the end, von Trier seems to believe in God but does not believe in the churches that try to codify what he wants. All of this works because of von Trier's passionate desire to understand how one can please God under horrendous terms; the epilogue, that takes the already-great material to a new level and shows how inspired von Trier is, starts with a moment of sad irony and then leaps to the skies with an image that fills the most atheistic person with questions and the more religiously spiritual people with hope. Here is a film that reaches for the stars and makes it there.

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