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Breaking the Waves (1996)

R  |   |  Drama, Romance  |  13 November 1996 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.9/10 from 45,727 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
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Did You Know?


Helena Bonham Carter was originally cast in the role of Bess. One of the reasons she turned it down was because of the sex content, arguing she didn't feel comfortable enough with her body at that age. 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 I Lars von Triers rige (1999) See more »


Cross Eyed Mary
Written by Ian Anderson
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Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

Bleak, Thoughtful, Disturbing, Touching and A Long Way Off From Being Light Viewing.
30 January 2007 | by (London) – See all my reviews

Emotional power is one of the most difficult and complex aspects of film-making to succeed in. Very few films can manage to be emotionally destructive, while still retaining the viewer's concentration and dedication to the piece. Yet, Breaking the Waves is a film that holds more emotionally power that most films, it is not a film you will want to see again. One viewing is enough (at least for a long period of time). Bearing in mind, you will feel devastated by the film's self-destructive nature and after viewing such an unforgettable story of heart ache and sadness you will have etched into the back of your mind.

Breaking the Waves is a complicated story; it is one that studies love, regret, guilt, madness and religion. Breaking the Waves is set in a small religious town deep in Scotland and tells the sorrowful story of the innocent Bess (Emily Watson) and her lover Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard). Jan becomes paralysed in a freak accident at the oil-rig he is working on and asks his estranged wife Bess to have sex with other men and then tell him what it was like to keep their relationship stable.

Lars Von Trier, the founder of Dogme film-making creates a drama that remains in a league of its own. Though Breaking the Waves is not Dogme film-making (like The Idiots) it still has elements of Dogme film-making style littered around it. The film is separated into chapters, which work as wonderful mood and symbolic transitions. These sequences are a single shot focusing on something that is considerably impressive, with the added touch of a brilliantly chosen song to fit the mood. The film's general direction is one that feels like it has been shot with a hand-held style.

The film studies many questionable elements of life, including topics such as death, terminal illness, spirituality, emotions and hypocrisy in religion. These are just a view of the talking points that crop up throughout the long running-time. The film asks the viewer questions and most importantly tests how much harrowing devastation you can handle. There is no denying just how pure Breaking the Waves is.

Emma Watson gives a career defining performance with her pitiful role of a naive young woman, who just wants to be free from pain. The performance is very painful to watch because it is so unbearably realistic. You become apart of her journey and watch her emotions and sanity spiral out of control, even from the people who love her. Heartbreaking in every way.

Breaking the Waves is a difficult film and one that is not for everyone, though I say it is a film which deserves the critical acclaim it gets.

31 of 40 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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