It’s the 1970s and Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) is a devout young woman in a strict church in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands. She has saved herself for her husband, for that is what good girls do and she so wants to be a good girl.
She marries an outsider–the not-Scottish, not-religious Jan (Stellan Skarsgard)–much to the disapproval of the elders in the church. Her sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) supports her because she loves her, but is also wary of what she sees as a rash decision.
Bess discovers her sexuality and, as time goes on, becomes increasingly obsessed with her husband. Eventually, he has to leave in order to return to the oil rig where he works–most of the men of the village work on the sea or on the rig–and she doesn’t respond well to their separation.
The church that rules her family’s life doesn’t allow for outbursts of emotion so she’s to keep her feelings to herself, which doesn’t help, as she isn’t the most stable human being to ever scream at the ocean during a gale.
Sweet Bess, though, she wants someone to love and she waited for someone and she finally had that someone and now he’s far away on the rig. She goes to the church regularly to pray and God talks to her and gives her advice.
She asks God to send Jan home to her, as she simply can’t take being along any longer. God asks if that’s really what she wants? And she says yes.
Jan is then injured quite severely and brought back to the mainland. Of course this is Bess’ fault, because the ideas in our heads affect events in the outside world. [This is not a spoiler, it’s in the trailers and on the DVD packaging.]
Unable to physically be with his wife, Jan tells Bess to go out and have sex with other men and return to tell him about it. It will be like they are being together, you see, and that will save him.
She wants to be good. Good girls do what their husbands ask even if they don’t want to. Even if they saved themselves and only wanted to be with one person their entire life.
But it would save his life… So she does as he asks and it seems to work. The more she sleeps with people she doesn’t want to the more his condition improves.
Of course, they live in a small community…and the Church that Progress Forgot isn’t going to overlook her actions.
Then his condition become quite desperate, which means she needs to do something equally desperate to counterbalance his situation.
So, the film started and I saw it was by Lars von Trier and I immediately began talking to my own god. The god of ‘please don’t let there be up-close genital mutilation in this.’ (The first film of von Trier’s I saw was Antichrist and that is really not the one to start with, let me tell you.) No genital mutilation in this one, I’m happy to report.
It does have his typical outstanding musical choices and chapter headings. The chapters are accompanied by panoramic digital paintings by Per Kirkeby that I fell in love with.
Emily Watson’s performance was stellar. It was her first film performance and garnered several awards and nominations and rightly so. Everyone was well-cast, but Watson shone brighter than them all.
They never tell us how the characters met, though, which is a little annoying, but I’m trying to let that go.
Breaking the Waves was on the Wikipedia page for BDSM in films and I’m not sure why. There wasn’t really any kink in it–though I suppose, ‘Go do other dudes and come back and tell me about it,’ is kinky in its own way. If you’re telling someone to do it because you think it’s going to save your life it’s more a practical matter than a sexy one, I think.
Breaking the Waves is about belief and love and sex and intimacy. It was compelling. I recommend it highly.