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butterfinger8 November 2004
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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Second Time Viewing-Still Powerful, Disturbing, Rich
Ralph Michael Stein21 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Director and writer Lars von Trier's 1996 "Breaking the Waves" received much attention worldwide when initially released. Commentary reflected the high degree of polarization this long, engrossing and deeply disturbing Indie film created. I saw it when it first briefly hit Manhattan theaters and last night I watched the DVD release, reabsorbed in its intricacies.

Emily Watson's portrayal as young Bess McNeill is the most powerful performance of a career still in the ascendancy. Bess lives in a small Scottish village by the sea, away from any center of culture or heterogeneity. She has no job and she appears to volunteer her services as a janitor at the church which her family attends. It is the dominating religious, social and - I suspect - political entity in the area.

Bess has one friend, a woman who becomes increasingly important both to her and the story, nurse Dodo McNeill, widowed wife of Bess's brother. (Katrin Cartlidge, a truly gifted and beautiful actress, is Dodo. A tragedy, she died in 2002 of pneumonia barely into her forties.)

The movie begins with Bess asking, apparently, for permission to marry an "outsider." She receives, in church, grudging authorization to wed Jan, a worker on an off-shore oil rig (the always interesting Stellan Skarsgard). We're never told how she met him but the church scene immediately and succinctly conveys the fear and, indeed, near loathing the male religious oligarchs have of anyone entering their closed and tightly controlled community.

Jan and Bess wed in a ceremony followed by a party where some of Jan's hard drinking work pals attend but hardly mingle with the lemonade-sipping locals (there's a very funny chug-a-lug competition that highlights the dividing lines neatly).

Bess is not only a virgin, she's never seen a naked man before. Her initiation into sex is rather a success and her love for Jan deepens as rapidly as her new found lust for vigorous and frequent love-making.

Jan suffers a near fatal accident on the rig and is flown back to hospital. It doesn't take long for the doctors to determine he's permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins) becomes chief physician not only to Jan but to his disconsolate wife who prays for a miraculous recovery while remaining devoted to her husband.

What happens next is the plot twist that has fascinated many and repelled quite a few. Jan, knowing that physical intimacy with Bess is impossible, asks her - no, really implores her - to take on any number of lovers AND report back the details of her trysts. After a hesitant and almost funny start, she complies. As her sex life accelerates any humor evaporates.

The results of the ongoing experiment in vicarious lovemaking for Jan and for Bess, sinking way beyond her depth, are disastrous. She slowly elides into a twisted caricature of the personality envisioned by Jan. Communal rejection is not far off. And this in a community where membership in the church is the sole indicium of civic and personal legitimacy.

Some critics and viewers described Bess as retarded or simple from the beginning. I found her to be naive and inexperienced, the kind of sheltered person for whom marriage to a man of broad experience and unfettered sexuality is boundlessly liberating. Bess's inevitable penance does not stem from any interior failing of her's. It's the "game" urged on by Jan that exposes her to the venomous wrath of religious fundamentalists whose innate need to condemn and consign to hell (literally and volubly) is beyond Jan's imagination. Whether his desire that she engage in sexual escapades really reflected his belief that it would make him feel better or whether this was an evolving pathological caprice on his part (and both views have strong adherents here on IMDb and elsewhere), he did not foresee the resulting debacle.

On several levels von Trier has mirrored, through powerful acting and awesome direction, that small, closed society whose fundamentalist interiority is a microcosm of the hatred that blind, non-humanistic religion often brings (it's easy to see the stern, unsmiling, dogma-obsessed church leader as a modern incarnation of the sixteenth century's John Knox of Edinburgh).

Von Trier won't let Bess escape as her situation worsens. Dr. Richardson and Dodo first ask and then beg her to abandon her self-destructive and now publicly shocking behavior. There is a sense of classical tragedy in the painful unfolding of Bess's mental and physical deterioration. She can't curtail her conduct because of her absolute devotion to Jan and her community can't and won't understand or forgive her.

The resolution is wrenching but also uplifting with the suggestion that Bess's acts reflect good in a pristine sense. It's not meant to be realistic but to deliver, I felt, a needed moral lesson.

"Breaking the Waves" isn't for everyone. It does showcase brilliant acting and direction in a fable that has some very uncompromising arguments about a religious dominance which only concerns itself with a believed afterlife, caring nothing about addressing the pains of living and administering to its sufferers compassionately.

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Incredible and Powerful Film
gbheron15 August 2003
Initially, this story about the marriage of young Scottish woman and a Scandinavian oil rig worker had my eyes glazing over. I was ready to hit the eject button about 20 minutes into the movie. But I held in there and slowly was drawn in to their lives, their environment, and the ghastly tragedy that confronts them.

Lars von Trier is a very patient storyteller, as well as being an eccentric movie maker. In Breaking the Waves, he slowly, very slowly unfolds his drama. The problem is; you have to pay careful attention, and this can be difficult. Von Trier's style, with its hand-held camera, lack of artificial lighting, grainy photography, and lingering close-ups can try the patience. The movie is also long, clocking in at about 2½ hours. But if you see it through, the final half hour will blow your mind, and you will have seen one of the best (and most emotionally powerful) movies of 1996, maybe even the whole decade.
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This film is not for the faint of heart or soul.
princesss_buttercup319 June 2008
Without a doubt, this is one of the most emotionally devastating films I've ever seen in my life. It seems to be a rumination on the true nature of goodness. Bess is a simple creature and her purity and innocence are delivered by Emily Watson in a heartbreaking performance that you will not soon forget. It is a crime that Watson didn't win Best Actress for this role, though I imagine that many voters were turned off by the disturbing subject matter of this film. I had a visceral reaction to the film in the form of serious physical and emotional discomfort. I had rented it, and actually had to stop it at several points and give myself some time to recover before continuing on. I'm not sure it's a film that I'd ever want to see a second time, but I believe it is a true work of art and am grateful to have seen it.
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A powerful, original vision. One of the greatest movies of the last ten years.
Infofreak15 July 2003
It's a pity that for most people Lars von Trier's involvement with the Dogme group of film makers is the main thing they know about him. Wherever you stand on the Dogme issue (personally I'm all for it as long as they continue to make movies as great as 'Festen' and 'The Idiots'), his brief alliance with the group has overshadowed amazing work like 'Element Of Crime', 'Europa' and 'Breaking The Waves'. 'Breaking The Waves' was made before the Dogme manifesto was formulated, but it can be seen as a step in that direction, with its use of documentary techniques as opposed to the flamboyant and highly stylized approach of von Trier's earlier films. To me the ends justifies the means, and the bottom line is that this is an extraordinary and powerful movie, one of the greatest of the last ten years. The main reason it is so remarkable is because of the devastating performance of Emily Watson, one of the most impressive screen debuts in the history of film. Watson plays Bess McNeill, a naive and odd young woman living in a remote and deeply religious Scottish community. She is so good in this movie she'll leave you speechless! Stellan Skarsgard, a most underrated actor in my opinion,('Insomnia', 'Ronin') plays Bess's husband and is also superb, and the supporting cast includes the late Katrin Cartlidge ('Naked') as Watson's sister-in-law, and von Trier regulars Jean-Marc Barr (almost unrecognizable from his leading role in 'Europa'), as one of Skarsgard's work buddies, and cult legend Udo Kier ('Flesh For Frankenstein', 'The Story Of O') in a cameo as a very nasty piece of work who Bess has the misfortune to encounter. The less you know about this movie the more powerful it will be, and even a jaded cynic like myself was surprised at how effective its spiritual theme was. To me 'Breaking The Waves' is a much better more than von Trier's better known 'Dancer In The Dark', and Watson's performance makes Bjork's look like that of an enthusiastic but not very talented amateur (which of course, is exactly what she is). Highly recommended.
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We do not need bells in our church to worship God.
Andy (film-critic)25 September 2004
This is the story about love. Everyday we experience this breathtaking emotion with both inanimate objects and with other souls. It is when we finally find true love that nothing else in the world seems worthy or good. We work as hard as we can to continue this warmth that we feel in our hearts when true love exists, and sometimes that means going to a level we never thought imaginable.

That is the central theme of Lars von Trier's epic, Breaking the Waves. Love has no boundaries as we watch Bess do everything possible (and more) to keep the relationship with her husband together during the roughest of times. Emily Watson controls the character Bess giving her best performance ever. The emotion and serenity that is felt, not only behind the character of Bess, but also behind Watson's eyes is phenomenal. It is not often that Hollywood is able to capture this sort of raw emotion, but Watson pulled it off with incredible talent.

Outside of Watson's character, there is the story. Lars von Trier does a spectacular job of continually building on the foundation that he has begun.

Watson is his foundation, and Trier builds this amazing world around her. In this film, everything from talking to God to reverberating stories to her husband while he is in the hospital only helps build the story to even higher heights. I will be honest; I shed tears at the end of this film. It will pull at every heart muscle that you have and really make you look at your significant other and truly feel the power of love.

This is a love story, but not like one we have seen in a very long time. I don't think we will see anything similar to this again. It will be hard for Hollywood to emulate such raw talent, groundbreaking direction, and life-changing story.

Thank you Lars von Trier for your imagination and passion for love.

Grade: ***** out of *****
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Leap of Faith
Benedict_Cumberbatch5 March 2007
"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.
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Gritty sequel to Dreyer's "Ordet"
tieman6413 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" stars Emily Watson as Bess McNiell, a young woman who lives in a strict, Calvanist village. Bess spends her days working at a local church, talking to God and slipping in and out of various delusions. Because she has an unspecified mental illness, Bess also believes that she is a "sinner" who must constantly pay penance unto the Lord.

One day Bess meets Jan, an offshore oil worker. The village doesn't welcome Jan, but Bess does. Eventually Bess and Jan get married, but Jan has an accident and is rendered paralysed. Blaming herself for Jan's injury, Bess sacrifices herself by giving her body to vicious sailors. She lets them rape and cut her flesh, an act of "self-sacrifice" which Bess believes will result in a "miracle" which heals Jan of his paralysis.

The film climaxes with Bess stumbling into Jan's hospital room, her body bloody and torn. She hopes her husband has been miraculously cured. He has. Bess dies in the room next to his saved body.

The local pastor believes Bess to be an "unholy" and "sinful" girl, and so he prepares a funeral in which she is to be consigned to hell. The night before the funeral, however, Jan steals Bess's body from the morgue and gives her a secret burial at sea. When her body hits the ocean, giant bells ring in the heavens above. The audience recalls an earlier scene in which it is explained that the local church forbid the use of bells.

So what we have here is essentially a Christ allegory. The "crazy Christian" who is humble and meek, the film's seven chapters, the corrupt local church, the public stoning, the personal sacrifice, the miracle, the crucifixion, the grave robbing and resurrection, are all fairly well known stories in the New Testament.

The film's message ultimately amounts to the same as Dreyer's "Ordet", a film which director Lars Von Trier cites as his favourite film of all time. "Waves" says only the innocent are able to have steadfast faith in God, a fact which will make them seem mad in the eyes of both unbelievers and those who hold dogmatically to tradition. Like Dreyer's film we also have a doctor who learns to put aside the rationality of science and blindly embrace faith. The film teaches us the power of sacrifice, faith, submission and personal suffering and says that physical love has healing, life giving powers.

In other words, it's a bunch of Christian propaganda: shut up, be a child and do as told. In reality, Bess is caught between two patriarchal paradigms, the virgin and the whore. She is a victim, sacrificed on the altar of patriarchy by a sadistic husband and cruel God. On the plus side, the film goes further than "Ordet" in that it carefully examines the social conditions existing around Bess. It suggests - perhaps unintentionally - that women will continue to pay with their lives for the sins of their fathers, unless truly revolutionary social alterations and religious reformations are made.

Unsurprisingly, Martin Scorsese cites "Waves" as one of his favourite films. Its blend of religion and sadism, as well as its false badge of "realism", aligns itself firmly with Scorsese's own world view. And where Scorsese's "Raging Bull" seems designed around the stations of the cross, "Waves" offers seven stylish chapter cards, each accompanied by a memorable song. These songs are themselves fairly symbolic, indirectly referencing Virgins, Holy Marys, unconditional love, crucification, and blind hope. The film's first song, "All the Way from Memphis", is used in a similar fashion by Scorsese in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", whilst the rest of the song selections have a rock and roll feel which would feel right at home in Scorsese's filmography.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about "Breaking the Waves" is its visual style. Von Trier uses hand held 8mm cameras and pretends to stick close to the principles of Dogme 95. The result is that the film has a superficially "realistic" and "voyeuristic" feel. Such a raw and gritty film caused quite a commotion when it was initially released, but this style has now been absorbed and digested by countless big budget Hollywood productions to the extent that "Breaking the Waves" has lost much of its bite. The gore, unflattering lighting, film grain and shaky camera now feel less like an attempt to uphold the rules of Dogme 95 than a manipulative aesthetic itself.

And on another level, isn't it ironic that a film which tries so hard to fake reality, would be so obsessively concerned with attacking rationality? That a film which pretends to adhere to the principles of Dogme 95, would itself be about religious dogmas? Still, you want visceral drama, you get visceral drama. Emily Waton, like Jesus in Mel Gibson's "Passion of Christ", puts herself through hell to move your soul. Bless the poor girl.

7/10 - Worth one viewing.
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Outstanding film of complicated, unsettling ideas
pooch-87 January 1999
The first time I saw Breaking the Waves, I was astonished that Emily Watson had not acted for the cinema before her turn as Bess McNeill. What she brings to the role of the naive Scottish girl offers a clinic on superlative acting that could humble veterans with ten times the experience. Another thing that makes this film so special is that it never backs away from its vivid and mature examination of love, commitment, and aspects of the metaphysical. I easily class this work as one of the top films of the 1990s. Director Lars von Trier is a true visionary, and the (largely hand-held) cinematography by Robby Muller perfectly defines the tone of the film -- in fact, the theatre where I saw Breaking the Waves posted a disclaimer that warned anyone who suffers from motion or sea-sickness to see the film at their own peril!
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Very Interesting Art-Film
Warning: Spoilers
When I first watched this film, I wasn't quite sure what period this was set in (the early 1970's according to many), where it was (Scotland, I think), or what exactly was wrong with Beth (Emily Watson in a break out performance). Was she nuts? Was she just a bit slow? Was she simply oppressed by the fanatical religious fervor of her town and family? I watched the whole thing with a skeptical eye. Von Trier's dogmatic style of filming (with shaky hand-held cameras, lots of intimate close-ups and a gritty texture to the stock that actually makes it look like a film from the early 70's) irked me on some level, but then I loved the "chapter breaks" with the striking wide-screen vistas of scenic wonders accompanied by pop music (from the 70's). It was all mildly interesting and a bit strange (which is always good), and when Beth made her huge "sacrifice" I didn't quite know what to make of it all, it all being so grim and emotionally draining. And then, the end, one little scene reminded me that this was not supposed to be some gritty piece of character drama, but a work of art, and suddenly, I lit up at the sight and sound of the last scene and it all made sense, Beth made sense (in a surreal way), and it was all so wonderful and tragic and wholly satisfying. Von Trier had given me a totally unique cinematic experience, and whether or not I "liked" the film had become moot. It had affected me like no other film before, and that is the highest remark any work or art could hope for.
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Bleak, Thoughtful, Disturbing, Touching and A Long Way Off From Being Light Viewing.
Det_McNulty30 January 2007
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.
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Left reeling, fascinated yet puzzled
jandesimpson5 August 2002
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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My brief review of the film
sol-23 November 2005
A film about love, faith, religion and many other things, it is a draining experience but yet fascinating to watch, with superb acting and an intriguing main character. It is surprising how gripping the film is, as it is difficult to watch, not just because of the subject matter, but also because of its style. Made by the conventions of Dogme '95, the film has many extreme close-ups, generally shaky camera-work and errors in continuity for editing and audio levels, all of which is supposed to amount to a film that looks and feels more realistic. With this film though, the quality of the acting and writing provide enough realism alone, and therefore the style serves no purpose other than to make the film more difficult to digest. It is an incredibly long film, and while this is not too much of a problem, the chapter markers are noticeably long without much reason either. Still, the film comes through despite its detracting bits. Watson, in her first film performance, is excellent, and Cartlidge provides great support. This is not an easy film to watch and like, but it is easy to admire what is done well in the film.
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One of the Ugliest, Most Hateful Films I've Ever Seen
evanston_dad16 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I hated this absolutely dire film.

Emily Watson is a marvelous actress, and she's tremendous in this, but it's no thanks to the movie, which, whether intentional or not, is hateful to her. She's saddled with a degrading role, asked to play a simpleton who honors her crippled husband's wish to have sex with other men and tell him all about it, an arrangement that spins out of control until she is ultimately gang raped and beaten to death even as her husband regains the use of his legs. Had the husband remained crippled, the film, though still pointless, might at least have been a sad study in one woman's foolish devotion to a higher power; but instead, it suggests that her sacrifice was entirely worth it -- her husband walks, and a horrible ending finds the bells of heaven ringing merrily as she ascends to her God.

What drek. Lars von Trier is the worst kind of director, the kind that thinks it's his job to incite and provoke his audience, and that movies must be unendurable if they are to say anything that matters. What's most unendurable about this literally sickening movie is the hand-held camera work that not for one minute sits still. Von Trier would no doubt call me a Philistine, but he can kiss my ass and give me my money back.

Grade: F
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I thought it was a very clever analogy
pipp510 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Bess is obviously a Christ figure - mystical, thought by others as slightly bonkers and different. Just like Christ her message was "All you need is love". She performed miracles such as praying that Jan could walk again. The Exclusive Brethren are of course the Pharisees - sticklers for rules and the holy law. They have lost touch with God, and forgotten about compassion and the humaneness of humanity. Her sister in law is a Doubting Thomas. The doctor is one of the apostles or possibly John the Baptist - perhaps someone with a deeper knowledge of the Bible can explain the parallels better than I. She suffered for her beliefs at the hands of the sadistic sailors and eventually died for the sake of love, just as Christ did at the hands of the Romans and scheming Pharissees. Her body was removed from the casket as Christ was also taken from the cave. Finally she was resurrected – the bells pealing in the sky.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and need to see it again to pick up on bits I missed the first time. I thought it was a very clever allegory.
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Breaking the rules
OttoVonB18 January 2006
In this film, legendary filmmaker and figure of controversy Lars Von Trier gets as far away from his earlier films as possible. From almost excessive visual stylization and remoteness, he uses an approach that is disturbingly documentary-like, heavily reliant on improvisation and incredibly intimate for the first time.

Breaking the Waves is the story of simple-minded, good-hearted and slightly bonkers Bess McNee (Emily Watson in her first role!) of a secular Scottish community. She falls for a stranger from an offshore oil rig (Jan, played with consummate charm and tenderness by Stellan Skarsgard) who's long absences torture her. Eventually, he returns, paralyzed and, wanting Bess to live happily, convinces her to take lovers, telling her it will cure him while hoping for her to find someone else. Things (mainly Bess's mental state) go quite horribly wrong from that point on..

The story of itself is ripe with melodrama and would strain the credulity of even the most naive of viewers if done conventionally. Such is not the case however and Von Trier turns a horrid tale into something intimate, real, tender and heartbreaking thanks to a bare-bones approach that puts all the more emphasis on an excellent cast (especially the late Katrin Cartlidge as Bess's widowed stepsister Dodo). The witty musical interludes that serve as chapter marks to the story only serve to further put you under the spell.

Though the film is excellent on its own, it is part of a thematic trilogy (along with the dogma effort "The Idiots" and the astounding "Dancer in the Dark"). The main point is that Von Trier keeps toppling rules and barriers. Good. That means there's more to look forward to...
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How can you love a word?
Diand1 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Although Breaking the Waves is interesting in many aspects, like the beautiful cinematography by Robby Müller (Paris, Texas), it is the story that has the most staying power. Von Trier's movies have a tendency to watch like literature and the division in chapters presents the first comparison. The static shots with their slowly changing picture as introduction to each chapter foreshadow the story in a nutshell, for example the large village shot against the background of the small boat Bess uses to make her sacrifice, or the changing of the light in the flow of the river indicating a passing.

Set in a close strongly religious community it tells many stories: The most important is the destruction of an individual by that community that use the Bible to maintain control over its inhabitants. The ultimate punishment of abandonment is used to spread fear. One of the best scenes is at the wedding party: One of Jan's friends empties his glass in one, one of the elders does the same, Jan's friend breaks a plastic glass, the elder responds by breaking his glass resulting in a bleeding hand; this scene already stating the length the elders will go to maintain their power over the community. As Bess later returns to the church for consolation, she is only rejected by even her own parents.

It all watches like a Greek tragedy with biblical proportions: Bess has to make the ultimate sacrifice, become a prostitute and die for it, to rescue her husband Jan from his death. As Bess is the only true believer in the movie, only her prayers are answered. Note that none of the elders or the sailors on the boat Bess visits has proper names. And the story has more angles: A feminist one, as the community is lead by men that disallow women to speak. And a deep distrust for the medical practice, more obvious in Von Trier's Riget / The Kingdom (a must-see by the way), as Dr. Richardson only adds to the misery. I found the end shot somewhat redundant and naive; it is not the kind of shot present in Solyaris for example that questions the whole movie.

Von Trier is able to direct actresses in a way that their performance sticks to you weeks after you have seen the movie, here with Emily Watson. There is a parallel between the sacrifices Bess has to make for Jan and the sacrifices Von Trier demands from Emily Watson exposing her bare essentials and personality in front of the camera.

Breaking the Waves is a slow and overlong movie: It doesn't need 2 ½ hours to tell its story. But it still makes an overwhelming impression by acting and story.
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Very difficult to watch
Dennis Littrell14 March 2001
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon.)

Emily Watson's performance is extraordinary, and Stellan Skargard is very good, but this is without a doubt the most degrading, depressing and tragic movie I have seen in a long, long time. I had to force myself to watch it, hoping that somehow something redeeming would transpire. Two and one half hours later I can say that it did not. I wish I could say that this was a great work of art, but it is not. It is a sad, very sad commentary on the madness of human beings, a twentieth century 'tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.' Particularly depressing were the church fathers in their beards and their stupidity. And be forewarned, the sexuality is degrading, and the very essence of human love is willfully and repeatedly perverted.

In making this movie, Director Lars von Trier no doubt sought a kinship with the tragedies of Shakespeare and the Greeks in which the fates destroy the protagonist because of a so-called 'fatal flaw,' a flaw the protagonist cannot help. Bess's fatal flaw was her childlike nature twisted by circumstance. In the great tragedies the essential purpose is to bring the audience, through its involvement and its identification with the protagonist, to a catharsis, a catharsis that cleanses the emotions and allows us to see the world as it really is, free of self-delusion. But Von Trier's bizarre and pathetic ending with those ridiculous bells in the sky was closer to bathos than anything else, and steered us not toward catharsis but into a kind of emotional limbo where not even emptiness is felt.
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fanfare for the damaged
Blake11 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Lars von Trier is a director whose name I've heard almost incessantly through the years but whose work I've just now arrived at. After seeing this film, I'm not what you'd call encouraged. All I knew beforehand is that it contained some minor detail on offshore drilling (something of a personal interest) and featured Emily Watson, an actress I much admire. Both turned out to be the highpoints of a film that is overlong, all pretension, and no profundity.

Most audiences know there are appreciable subtleties when it comes to performances, framing by the camera, and the editing. They know some directors can deliver a cogent message from only these three devices instead of relying on insistent music cues or excessive dialogue. Most audiences prefer this method because it seems less cloying, more sophisticated. And it's a skill von Trier utilizes. There is music here but only during pointless title cards that break the narrative into segments. There may have been background music in the wedding that opens the film, but I'd have to take another look to be sure. The story's delivery, however, depends almost entirely upon Watson: what she does, what she says or doesn't say, how she inflects.

Her character's name is Bess, and an alert viewer is aware that this woman is seriously mentally ill. She has been oppressed all her life, by her parents and by their community, all of them beholden to the Calvinist church. She talks to God a lot, a one-sided conversation though she goes a step further than is usual in the movies, by composing His responses and projecting aloud His contralto voice. I applaud Watson for how successfully she imparts the damaged psyche of this woman. She conveys total disintegration without self-conscious expressions or gestures that would have distanced the actress from her character. Another actress may have been compelled to do that, to play against the blunt harshness of the material.

But the other characters are far less developed. Their existence is kept at the rote level of the screenplay, to provide various foils for Bess's brainsickness. Okay, but to what end? First there is her husband, Jan, a roughneck who suffers his own mental damage after an accident on an oil rig leaves him paralyzed. Consequently, he implores his wife to sleep with other men and tell him about it afterward. It will aid his recovery. This request understandably mortifies her, even after she relents. Then there's the doctor and nurse (the latter is an in-law) who take care of Jan. Both of them try to talk sense into Bess, but something in their manners suggest not concern so much as the deluded ramblings of clinical hypocrites, people who are as compromised in their own way. The essential conflict in their relationship with Bess is that they just don't get her (i.e. the value of her faith). All she wants is to help her husband. She is naïve and emotionally fractured, but her intentions are inherently good. That's all that matters in the end.

Thanks in part to naturalistic camera-work by Robbie Muller, and the way it lingers on the seedy details of this frigid Scottish country—how it connotes a "slice of life" quality—von Trier does a skillful job of keeping us off-balance for much of the film's first half. We think we're in an objective, more or less realistic, drama and only gradually clued in as to the simple-minded parable he's building towards.

Sure, you can argue for the absence of overt moralizing, that it's all relative, etc. But look again: there is a definite objective. Everything is posed. It is all in the performances, in the close-ups of Watson. What von Trier has done is to communicate a message almost exclusively through his performers and that message is reprehensible. The vagueness which continues to permeate the story till near its conclusion is, not the ambiguity of life, but a coy obfuscation by the storyteller. I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it finally happens, it doesn't just drop—it plummets and cracks the ground.

In the final shot, high above the rig platform, when heaven's bells begin to ring for Bess's "sacrifice," my stomach turned. Few images are as hokey. What a downer, also, to celebrate the self-destruction of a young woman whose death resulted from the oppression she suffered; that denied her the exercise of mental faculties she needed in order to understand and cope with life. Yes, that is something to celebrate. To look upon Bess with sympathy and reflect on her end with regret for her malady is not good enough. For von Trier, it merits celebration. That tells me something rather sordid about him, and it's more disturbing than any of the film's merely prurient aspects.

I don't think I'll be going on any more adventures with this guy. Not anytime soon.

Rating: 1 (out of 4)
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Deceptively simple, undeniably powerful
Christopher T. Chase4 April 2001
There had not been a lot of movies I'd seen in a very long time, where the act of embracing one's faith in a greater power, and an unselfish, all-encompassing belief in unconditional love and trust were so vividly and powerfully portrayed. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON so invests its characters with these traits, that I thought I would never see another film to rival it in this respect. I was sadly mistaken.

Neither Emily Watson or Stellan Skarsgard are as conventionally attractive as the kind of actors you would find in a big budget Hollywood production. Yet in their love scenes as Jan and Bess, I believe we get our very first glimpse on film of what sex between two people is meant to be as the Man Upstairs intended; not something dirty or vile or wanton, or anything as icily clinical as the conditions prescribed by Mother Church, but as a gift to us to be enjoyed, and therefore in turn the greatest gift that any one person can give to another as a sign of love and affection. That alone makes Skarsgard and Watson two of the sexiest, most passionate actors ever to make love on screen; they invest that much into Jan and Bess. I very nearly cried when Bess tells Jan in the throes of passion "Thank you." So deep, tender and uncalculating is her love for him, that he can't help but return it. Few of us will ever know a love of that capacity or intensity in our lifetimes.

Which is what makes this film's conceit easier to accept, and that much harder to bear. In these hard and cynical times, it would be easy to dismiss Bess as a feeble-minded idiot and have done with it. Had director Von Trier seen her story in that way, this would've been a pretty short film.

But when our love for another and our faith is all we have, no matter how misguided it is, no one has the right to question or debunk it, no matter how well-meaning they are. I don't think that Bess' fate could've been altered or avoided no matter how her husband's doctor, her mother, or her sister-in-law Dodo had tried to approach the situation. Her love for Jan and her faith in God are what simultaneously nourished, sustained, uplifted and destroyed her. At the end, she was afraid that maybe she had made a mistake investing herself in making the ultimate sacrifice, and maybe that's what Von Trier was trying to say with that ending, which I'm sure turned off a lot of viewers. If the sacrifices you make are in quest of such love and spirituality, then you can never be wrong.

That's a heady message, and a dangerous one if it is taken out of context. But for those who would condemn this film, I can only say this: you're not paying attention. BREAKING THE WAVES is a film about a woman fallen into promiscuity, the same way that BOOGIE NIGHTS is about a bunch of sleazy pornographers. If you're only looking at the surface, you shouldn't be questioning the content, but your own lack of vision.
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Raw Presbyterianism
tedg20 May 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers herein.

von Trier's strategy is simple: expose an actress in the most painful way and exploit it with abandon by personalizing camera techniques.

Here, he lucked out with a particularly courageous actress, unlike the much thinner `dancer.' Watson really does amaze, and this is a powerful film. Make no mistake, we watch Emily's insides here, not Bess's.

But how much reward can one get from this raw voyeurism? There's not a shred of intelligence in this kind of work, just stomach-punches. Except for some proof of the power of film and personal acting, we'll have to wait for someone else to actually transport us, change us.
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Kjartan Einarsson9 March 2006
Life is complex in many ways yet so simple, emotions complicate especially if they are deep, you can go through life without pain but their will be a price to pay and that is no pleasure. Breaking the Waves is a roller-coaster ride and i feel for the characters in this movie i feel their pleasure and pain, bitter sweet. Emily Watson became one of my favorite actors after this movie, she is truly amazing in the role of Bess McNeill. Director Lars Von Trier gets everything right here and makes the movie all directors dream of and at the same time fear, how can you make better a movie. I went to the cinema ten years ago and knew nothing about this film and some guy was making a speech about this film before the movie started and only reason i was there was that i had nothing better to do. I had the perfect cinema experience of my life and only a handful of films have moved me like this one did. Lesson in life a lesson in human behavior and a lesson in hate. I cannot stress this enough all people should watch this film, gives you a bit of happiness and also a lot of pain just like when you love someone.
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I just couldn't swallow it...
sursubbu7 December 2003
Warning: Spoilers
***WARNING*** This review may contain plot spoilers

It's probably a case of one man's food being another man's poison, but there was a distinct part in the film where I felt my all my interest and involvement in it completely snapping off, where I thought, despite its concerted attempt to be a palpably credible, sensitive emotional document, it came across as a shallow and exploitative piece. Unfortunately this was the main turning point of the film's narrative. This offbeat character drama is divided into several titled chapters based on what the director feels is the dominating event/theme of the chapter. The plot centers on Bess (Emily Watson), a girl who comes of a suffocatingly closed and ascetic coastal community that frowns upon all worldly attachments including mundane emotional ties, believing in complete surrender to a stern uncompromising God. Bess is intensely high-strung and child-like, the product of innate psychological disorder and an abnormally religious upbringing where being 'good' in the eyes of God is the sole raison d'être. She is shown indulging in regular conversation with divinity where she supplies voices for herself and 'God'. Life takes a significant turn when she marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard, unrecognizable from his turn as the persecuted conductor in Szabo's 'Taking Sides' which I have talked about previously), an off-shore oil-rig worker and ardent young husband. Bess believes the fruits of marital pleasure to be God's reward for her being 'good' and even sighs thanks to the Lord in her moment of carnal bliss. She is intensely attached to Jan's physical presence and grows alarmingly distraught when he leaves for his extended work schedules on the oilrig. Bess fervently prays to her God to send Jan back early. Jan does arrive early.but as the victim of a terrible accident that has left him almost completely paralyzed from neck down. Bess is stricken with sorrow and consuming guilt and watches obsessively over Jan. Jan, on the other hand, is caught up with the idea that without going through the act of making love to Bess, he will surely die. He wants Bess to sleep with other people and relate her experience as a means of reliving their passionate marital life. And this is where the film lost me. It's not because the idea came as a shocking surprise because I'd heard about the film's premise. It's not because the film dips into pornography; no, every effort is taken to maintain a realistic, non-titillating, even sordid touch in the scenes of Bess's misguided promiscuity. It's just that the entire idea seems to me presented in such a pat manner as to suggest that everything in the film up to that point was just filled in to reach that turn. Nothing in Jan's character till then indicates that he would have any such predilection and even the vague references as to how his injures and prolonged exposure to medicinal drugs would affect his mind seem very ham-handed. From the turn the narrative took from this point on, despite what goodness the film may have possessed in terms of specific acting and directorial touches, I could not shake off the idea of it being a cheesy melodramatic and ultimately exploitative flick. That's just my opinion and I respect the view of those who would disagree on this issue Trier aims to achieve a grainy, off-color documentary style look for his film and it works quite fine although I could have done with less of the jerky hand-held camera movements. Each chapter in the film is heralded by a post-card coastal scene accompanied a track from the classic rock era (My ignorant self could only specifically identify 'Blowing in the Wind', 'Cross-Eyed Mary' and 'Child in Time', I'm sure others would do better). The film's leading light Emily Watson does a sincere and often affecting turn as Bess, bringing across the pathological devotion to her husband, which leads her to acts of perversion and ultimate tragedy. I wish the film had been more fully deserving of her efforts.
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A Bluff!
thehall21 May 1999
I think this is one of the most irritating movies I've ever seen. The making is really remarkable but the movie looks fake...the story keeps playing dirt with the audience making the characters act in unbelievable ways just to stimulate people's emotions. I would say it's just "pornography of feelings"
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Love gives and love takes
lib-424 March 1999
I have never seen an actress who can express more with her eyes than Emily Watson. Despite its length and the hand held camera, BTW is an unusual film about love and obsession. Jan can be interpreted as sick for what he asks Bess to do- but he comes around and realizes his sin- but it's too late for Bess. Faith and love get all mixed up in this movie- it's sad and powerful.

The movie makes the viewer really think about how far they will go if they love someone. Bess is pure in her own way and it is her downfall. Thought provoking film that contrasts religion with love and what God intends for us.
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