People still go to churches, temples, and mosques. People still read holy books, and practice the traditions passed on from so many generations earlier. Many people are still very religious. And yet if someone said that they had talked to God they would not be called a prophet, but instead be called insane. In this sense, in the modern world religion lives, but true faith is dead. Bess, the protagonist of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, seems to be the one exception. Through Bess, this film shows that true love and true faith are more powerful than any ancient tradition and together have the power to accomplish anything.
Bess could be called crazy, mentally retarded, or, as she calls herself, just plain stupid, however it is in the opinion of myself and more importantly the filmmaker that Bess is not inferior to the rest of us, but actually superior. She has too much faith, and too much love, and yes she talks directly to God. Due to our lack of innocence and beautiful naivety we and everyone around Bess doubt the power of her prayers and the effect of her actions. Everyone doubts Bess, except Bess herself.
When Bess prays for her husband Jan to come home from his job on an oil rig, he comes home paralyzed. We, the audience, certainly don’t blame her, and the doctor even laughs at the notion it was her fault. And yet she believes her prayers were the cause, and no one can convince her otherwise. So when Jan, half-delirious, tells her that the only way that she can save him is to make love to other men and tell him about it so he can feel like he’s made love to her and feel relieved, she does not merely take this as a request, but as a command. Jan is her husband and she loves him. She will abandon all of her purity and innocence and commit sin just to save him.
In order to understand the message of the film it is important to examine the community in which Bess lives. At the center of her town is a Calvinist church controlled by old men with long beards. Women are not allowed to speak during Church. When people die the men stand around the grave and officially condemn the person to hell. And, the point that bothers Bess most, the church has no bells. This religious community appears to be devoid of any traces of spirituality or true faith. The very meaning of religion seems to be absent in exchange for a strict, and misguided, worshiping of the Bible.
As Bess’ actions progress from offering herself to Jan’s doctor to a random sexual encounter with a stranger on a bus to becoming a prostitute, it becomes very clear that she is going to eventually make the ultimate sacrifice. Bess ventures out to a boat in the harbor that the regular whores refuse to go to. Once on the boat she suddenly notices the danger she is in, and once her “client” gets too aggressive she tries to leaves. He cuts her up, but she manages to escape. Jan’s condition plummets. And Bess believes that her leaving the boat is the cause. So she returns. This horrific scene is not shown, but instead we see the aftermath of her beaten and bleeding and dying on a stretcher being rushed to the hospital. In the hospital she sees that her act has had no influence on Jan’s condition, and, puzzled and disturbed, for the first time in the film Bess loses hope. And then she dies.
And then the film cuts to Jan’s doctor being questioned about Bess’ death, and he explains that if he could he would change his original statement calling her crazy to instead call her simply “good”. This change of heart is soon explained as the film reveals that Jan not only improved, because of Bess’ sacrifice, but that he seems to be on his way to complete recovery. In the end it appears as if Bess was right. But the old unwise men of Bess’ church still stand around her grave and condemn Bess to Hell, because Bess is a sinner and deserves eternal damnation. Why? Because she loved Jan enough to sacrifice her body? Because she had enough faith to believe that God would reward her for her actions? Or maybe because she is a woman who dared to speak in Church saying so beautifully, “I don’t understand what you are saying. How can you love a word? You cannot love words. You cannot be in love with words. You can love another human being. That’s perfection!”? If Bess is a sinner, show me a saint.
In protest of the church leaders’ condemnation, Jan steals Bess’ body, and lets it rest at the bottom of the sea, a much more fitting burial considering the beauty of Bess’ soul. The next morning Jan awakens to the most beautiful of sounds: Church bells. This unexplained music causes Jan to smile as a tear rolls down his face. And the film cuts to the first image in the film that isn’t grainy. There is a pair of bells ringing from no place other than heaven.
The point is not whether you believe that in response to Bess’ actions God did in fact save Jan. It does not matter if you believe Bess did talk to God or if she’s just plain crazy. Your views on God and religion are irrelevant. The point is that Bess loved and Bess believed, and it is this love and faith that cause Jan’s miraculous improvement. True spirituality has nothing to do with words in a book or age-old traditions, these are merely tools that can help one achieve the true point of religion, and the true point of existence: Love.
Great write up Drew. This is a film that I have grappled with a lot. It is a big mess of contradictions that I find really fascinating and problematic. But I can’t deny the fact that it is a powerful cinematic experience, and Emily Watson delivers a phenomenal performance.
Thanks! Explain what you see as contradictions. Maybe I can convince you otherwise. :)
One aspect of the film that has always bothered me, and I’ll admit this probably has more to do with my own political ideology then the film, is that Von Trier is trying to present Bess as a woman who is oppressed by the patriarchy of the town, but who finds what could be described as liberation through her religious devotion. We are meant to think that Bess has defied and ultimately beaten the Church by following her faith. But ultimately everything she does is for her husband, which makes the “defeat” of the patriarchy seem… if not hollow, at least weaker and less potent. But then I wonder if Von Trier wants to make it complicated, because the film is clearly quite open ended in the way it could be interpreted.
von Trier goes to great lenghts to leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind that Bess is good, not touched by evil, innocent, wide eyed in her innocence, unknowing of the ways of evil in the world to the point of utter vulnerable/no protection against it. Her intent is so pure, so removed from this mortal coil and the religious rulers that keep it structured and balanced that it could never be remotely comprehended by them, they must for the survival of their own ego identity make meaning of it within the rules they have invented to endure, justify and explain the confounding mysteries of human existence on earth. Any challenge to this is anathema, unendurable, and everything will be crushed to keep it intact as we have seen throughout history. Bess begins as virgin and ends as whore, plays out the two extremes religion patriarchy & secular society (comprising both genders, let us not forget women have judged and demanded this of women too) have assigned to woman, yet even as whore she is sinless and pure. To me the bells were Bess signalling to Jan that she was in a state of grace and happy, had regretted nothing and was watching down on him with her endless compassion, and that nothing is as powerful as purity of intent and love.
Good point on the virgin/whore dichotomy. I think your reading and Drew’s reading of the film ultimately do fall in line with my reading of the film, at least with my reading of Von Trier’s intentions. I believe that ultimately he wanted to make a movie about faith in a faithless world, and about the power of “purity of intent and love” as you so eloquently put it Meg.
Yet, out of all of Von Trier’s films this is the only one that I really don’t know how I feel about it, at least until he made Antichrist. I think part of the problem is that as a non believer, when I think about Breaking the Waves, I automatically gravitate towards a secular reading of the film, but without the spiritual understanding of the film, a lot of the film’s themes become very problematic.
I guess this is what I meant in my last comment when I said it has more to do with my own political ideology, or my own personal beliefs is maybe a better term. But as I said before, cinematically the film is quite powerful, and I do admire the earnestness of the film. Some people have claimed he is being cynical or ironic with this film, but I don’t see it.
Just as a side note, as I am typing this it has occured to me that I really like Tarkovsky’s films a lot, and I have no problems accepting his films religious/spiritual themes. I’m going to have to go watch this film again, as it has been a few years since I last watched it.
“Explain what you see as contradictions.”
From a review written on another site, which states my opinion on the matter far better than I can:
“It’s a film that can be read as a feminist scream or a moldy bit of Christian-tinged misogyny, and it’s more meaningful for it, because it forces us to consider the thing from all angles. But its condemnation of tradition is unflinching, and its portrayal of a woman conditioned by church, patriarchy, and slut-shaming to the point of self-destruction is what stands out the most, for some, who see a battle between old-fashioned men (embodied by village elders and Udo Kier’s sadistic sailor) and New Men (the rig workers associated with technology, and the literal translation of Jan’s last name). The New Men, at worst, see a Magdalene where others see a tart; at best, they can detach a woman’s worth from the skin between her legs and honor her as a person in life and death. The two groups tug over Bess, assisted by a doctor (Adrian Rawlins) who functions as an intermediate sort of male, assuring Bess her moods are normal enough, at first, then joining the call to lock her down. It’s too bad that her moral strictures and our own—so evidently reflected in Jan’s paralysis—condemn her, and it’s too hard to ignore von Trier’s ultimate celebration of a woman beatified by personal sacrifice, or punished for breaking the rules, or made insane by freedom. There is no one way to read the film, and “Breaking the Waves” doesn’t get its due if we don’t revel in its contradictions."
“out of all of Von Trier’s films this is the only one that I really don’t know how I feel about it”
I feel like this about almost all the von Trier films I’ve watched (of the six I’ve seen the only one I’m certain about how I feel towards it is The Five Obstructions). I mean, for the record I adore Breaking the Waves and rank it among my very favourite films, but there are so many moments which sit in conflict with that, so many bits that send me spinning and unsure exactly what I think the film is and where its intent lies and whether I should trust it. That’s what I find so fascinating about von Trier’s body of work. I mean, for another example you can call Dogville anti-Statesican but to do so is absurdly reductive, whilst saying that it isn’t anti-Statesican but is instead commenting on humanity at large is also absurdly reductive. There’s enough evidence to call it anti-Statesican, and there’s enough evidence to say that the film is trying to apply itself to anywhere in the world, that both sides of the arguments can be supported well and yet neither side of the argument can be satisfyingly taken as some sort of almost definite truth. His films invite interpretation with their provocations yet deny any sort of easy interpretation.
The reminder for me in Breaking the Waves just on a purely personal level (quite apart from its metaphorical allegorical religious good/bad whys and wherefores) and when I stopped crying !!.. was really that, at the end of the day, sacrificing yourself for someone else is folly, life just rolls on and no one gives a flying fuck for longer than five minutes & it highlighted for me that the times I’ve done that in my life,( i.e. doing some kind of rescue operation on someone else) I’ve just been abrogating my responsibility to myself to live through myself, and getting the balance between self and other completely out of whack and how ultimately self destrucive that is.
Good write-up, Drew.
One ot the contradictions or problems with the film is that Bess, as an expression of her faith and love, commits these immoral acts, not just acts prohibited by God, but would be seen as anti-thetical to notions of romantic love as well. But I actually like this aspect of the film in some ways because I think it gets to the mystery of God and the limits of reason and moral rules—i.e. God does things that we can’t understand and that violate the moral rules he establishes. There are no satisfactory answers to explain these things—and it’s something that believers must wrestle with. (See A Serious Man.) How do we deal with these problems and msyteries? The film suggests that faith and love are the appropriate response; and not just a passive, intellectual faith, but a faith that acts even when that faith calls for something entirely irrational and immoral. In this way, Bess’ situation is not unlike Abraham’s dilmmena of having to sacrifice Isaac. How can God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? I love Breaking the Waves partly because it raises the same sort of situation. Abraham is blessed because of his great act of faith. Bess, too.
On the other hand, the device of having Jan ask Bess to make love to other men because he doesn’t want Bess to be deprised of sex in her life wasn’t entirely convincing. I mean, it didn’t ruin the film, but I wish I bought this part of the film a little bit more.
Jazz, I’ve always thought that Jan wasn’t completely sane at that point. I didn’t see it as him not wanting Bess deprived of sex, but instead him not wanting to be deprived of sex, and in his delirious state feeling as if when she made love to other men she was making love to him.
that was my impression as I recall
The first time I saw the film, I thought Jan wanted Bess to have sex so he could experience this vicariously. I found this really hard to believe, so on the second viewing I paid close attention to the related scenes. Here’s what I wrote:
in the second viewing, I interpreted his request as a way for Bess to not be trapped with him; for her to enjoy and live her life. Perhaps for Jan sex was essential for living. It also seemed to be something that really brought joy to Bess (the earlier scenes with Bess and Jan slightly support this). Therefore, he doesn’t want to deprive Bess of living (which she would do because of her love for Jan). The request is still bizarre, but it was a little less so on this second viewing.
" In the end it appears as if Bess was right."
Nice post Drew.
It could also be that Jan just recovered naturally. For me the positive aspect of the film is that Bess’ faith and hope appears to almost immediately transfer itself to the doctor and to her sister-in-law. This late transference somewhat reminds me of the way Anne, in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath seems to take on qualities exhibited by Herlofs Marte.
I have heard others (including Von Trier himself) make the connection with Dreyer’s work. I have only watched The Passion of Joan of Arc but he is a director I definitely need to investigate further, Day of Wrath actually being the film of his I am most interested in watching.
The transference of faith here isn’t as pronounced as it is in Day of Wrath, perhaps because it happens towards the end.