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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
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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 »


Featured in Zomergasten: Episode #20.1 (2007) See more »


Life on Mars
(theatrical version of film)
Written and Performed by David Bowie
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

Left reeling, fascinated yet puzzled
5 August 2002 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Although Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" is undoubtedly one of the most impressive films of recent years, I have delayed commenting on it until now, as my feelings about it are far from clear. Certainly it has an arresting quality that held me in a vice-like grip for nearly three hours - no mean achievement as generally once over the two-hour threshold one is looking for the scissors. But, no, it has a mesmerising quality that reminds me of Dreyer's "Ordet" at times. Both are set in remote communities and deal with religious concepts which, even for a semi-believer, remain difficult to comprehend; in the case of Dreyer the miracle of a resurrection and here the hint at something similar in a final scene I will not reveal. Both films have a supposedly mentally unstable central character, a young man who talks as Christ in "Ordet" while Bess, the young woman in "Breaking the Waves" talks to God who answers her in her own voice's deepest register. Bess falls in lave with Jan, an oil-rig worker and the early scenes chart their wedding. When Jan has to return to the oil-rig the distraught Bess prays to God for his return, a prayer that is answered ironically when he returns paralysed from the neck down after an accident on the rig. How Bess lives with this situation is the subject of the second and third hours of the film. These have at times an almost unbearable intensity and at one point, where a group of children taunt Bess, we are in deepest "Mouchette" country. It is one of those very rare films where I feel the use of a hand-held camera to be completely justified as it gives extraordinarily emotional events a frenetic immediacy. However by punctuating the action with chapter headings set against long held landscape stills, moments of an almost trance-like repose are achieved between each onslaught on the senses. Whether the film is anything more than a quirky tale of sexual derangement bordering on morbidity is something that two viewings have left me uncertain about. That I have compared it to Dreyer and Bresson is evidence that it is not a work to be ignored, but at the moment I have a gut reaction that there is more than a hint of sensationalism here that somewhat diminishes its artistic integrity when set beside the work of the earlier masters.

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