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Breaking the Waves (1996)

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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),
Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 42 wins & 25 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Dr. Richardson
Jonathan Hackett ...
Sandra Voe ...
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 <j.w.broxton@sheffield.ac.uk>

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 person being buried is called Anthony Dod Mantle. This is a reference to Lars von Trier's favorite cinematographer - Anthony Dod Mantle - who served as a location scout in the movie. See more »


When Jan leaves to go to the rig, one of the crew men gives Bess a flask of liquor. When she takes a sip, she's holding the flask with both hands and its opening is on the left side. There's a quick cut, and in the next shot the opening is shown to be on the right side of the flask. 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 »


Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Performed by Elton John
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

See more (Spoiler Alert!) »

User Reviews

Leap of Faith
5 March 2007 | by (Los Angeles, CA) – See all my reviews

"Dogville" is one of my all-time favourite films, and the most disturbing film I've ever seen. I've wanted to see "Breaking the Waves" in quite a while, and recently I finally had the chance. Now I can't say which one is better. What a heartbreaking experience. Emily Watson had one of the best film debuts ever, and this is probably the most accomplished female performance I've seen since Julianne Moore in "The Hours". Actually, if I had to list 3 favourite female performances now, I'd mention Watson, Moore and Isabelle Huppert in "The Piano Teacher". Lars von Trier has a special talent to direct women: just remember Nicole Kidman's and Björk's remarkable performances in "Dogville" and "Dancer in the Dark", respectively.

"Breaking the Waves" tells the story of the pure Bess McNeill (Watson) and her unconditional love for Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård), who is paralyzed after an accident at the oil-rig he works in. Then, Jan convinces Bess to have sex with other men and tell him the details of the sexual encounters, so he won't "forget" how to do it. Bess is determined to make Jan happy and to prove to God that she loves him, but she soon loses control of her actions. The storyline might sound absurd, but Von Trier isn't a joker and he takes us into a devastating journey. Katrin Cartlidge (1961-2002), an extremely gifted actress ("Naked", "Before the Rain", "Claire Dolan", "Career Girls", "Topsy-Turvy" and "No Man's Land") who died too young, delivers a captivating, discreet supporting performance as Dodo, Bess' loving sister-in-law.

I'd say "Breaking the Waves" and "Dogville" are opposite masterpieces: "Waves" being about love and goodness, "Dogville" being about hatred and evil, among other things, of course (nothing's easy or simple in Von Trier's universe). Both films are extremely dark and hard to watch, but "Waves" shows that Von Trier has faith in mankind. His detractors like to label him as a cynical atheist, but "Breaking the Waves" definitely proved me the opposite. Von Trier made a poignant epic about the struggle of an innocent, good-hearted woman who wants to do what God wants her to do (or, at least, what she thinks He wants her to do) and make her husband happy - even if she has to sacrifice herself for that. It's a leap of faith both for Bess and the watcher, who's got to decide if he's ready for such an experience. I wasn't disappointed at all. 10 out of 10.

35 of 44 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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