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Breaking the Waves
File:Breaking the waves us poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byLars von Trier
Written byLars von Trier
Peter Asmussen
Produced byPeter Aalbæk Jensen
Vibeke Windeløv
StarringEmily Watson
Stellan Skarsgård
Katrin Cartlidge
Jean-Marc Barr
Udo Kier
CinematographyRobby Müller
Edited byAnders Refn
Release date
  • 18 May 1996 (1996-05-18) (Cannes Film Festival)
  • 5 July 1996 (1996-07-05) (Denmark)
Running time
158 minutes[1]
Budget$7.5 million[2]
Box office$3.8 million (USA)[3]

Breaking the Waves is a 1996 film directed by Lars von Trier and starring Emily Watson. Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, it is about an unusual young woman, Bess McNeill, and of the love she has for Jan, her husband, who asks her to have sex with other men when he becomes immobilized from a work accident. The film is an international co-production led by Lars von Trier's Danish company Zentropa. It is the first film in Trier's Golden Heart Trilogy which also includes The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).


Bess McNeill is a pretty young Scottish woman with a history of psychological problems. She marries atheist oil rig worker Jan Nyman, despite disapproval from her community and her Free Scottish Presbyterian Calvinist church. Bess is steadfast and pure of heart, but extremely simple and childlike in her beliefs. During her frequent visits to the church, she prays to God and carries on conversations with Him using her own voice, believing that He is responding directly through her.

Bess has difficulty living without Jan when he is away on the oil platform. Jan makes occasional phone calls to Bess in which they express their love and sexual desires. Bess grows needy and prays for his immediate return. The next day, Jan is severely injured in an industrial accident and is flown back to the mainland. Bess believes her prayer was the reason the accident occurred, that God was punishing her for her selfishness in asking for him to neglect his job and come back to her. No longer able to perform sexually and mentally affected by the paralysis, Jan asks Bess to find a lover. Bess is devastated and storms out. Jan then attempts to commit suicide and fails. He falls unconscious and is readmitted to hospital.

Jan's condition deteriorates. He urges Bess to find another lover and tell him the details, as it will be as if they are together and will revitalize his spirits. Though her sister-in-law Dodo constantly reassures her that nothing she does will affect his recovery, Bess begins to believe these suggestions are the will of God and in accordance with loving Jan wholly. Despite her repulsion and inner turmoil to be with other men, she perseveres in her own sexual debasement as she believes it will cure her husband. Bess throws herself at Jan's doctor, but when he rebuffs her, she takes to picking up men off the street and allowing herself to be brutalized in increasingly cruel sexual encounters. The entire village is scandalized by these doings, and Bess is excommunicated. In the face of being cast out from her church, she proclaims, "You cannot love words. You cannot be in love with the Word. You can only love a human being."

Dodo and Jan's doctor agree the only way to keep Bess safe from herself is to have her committed, and as far away from her husband as possible. It is then that Bess decides to make what she thinks is the ultimate sacrifice for Jan: she unflinchingly goes out to a derelict ship full of barbarous sailors, who rape and violently attack her, to which she ultimately succumbs. The church refuses to give a funeral for her and damns her soul to hell. Unbeknownst to the church elders, Jan and his friends have substituted bags of sand for Bess's body inside the sealed coffin. Jan is later shown burying her in the ocean, in deep grief but fully restored to health. The film ends as church bells ring in the sky.


  • Emily Watson as Bess McNeill
  • Stellan Skarsgård as Jan Nyman
  • Katrin Cartlidge as Dodo McNeill
  • Jean-Marc Barr as Terry
  • Adrian Rawlins as Dr. Richardson
  • Jonathan Hackett as Priest
  • Sandra Voe as Mother
  • Udo Kier as Sadistic Sailor
  • Mikkel Gaup as Pits
  • Roef Ragas as Pim
  • Phil McCall as Grandfather
  • Robert Robertson as Chairman


Breaking the Waves was von Trier's first film after founding the Dogma 95 movement with fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. However the film breaks many of the movement's "rules", including built sets, post-dubbed music and computer graphics.[4] It was shot entirely with handheld Super35mm cameras[5] and is the first of von Trier's "Golden Heart trilogy", so named after a children's book he read about a little girl lost in the woods who gives away everything she has to others needier than herself[6] called Guldhjerte. He wanted to make a naturalistic film that was also a religious film without any miracles. Von Trier claimed that it took him five years to write the film and get financial backing, and he began to lose enthusiasm for it right after filming began. It had a budget of 42 million kroner.[7]

Helena Bonham Carter was von Trier's first choice to play the role of Bess, but she dropped out just before shooting was to start, reportedly due to the large amount of nudity and sexuality required by the role.[8] Several other big-name actresses were considered, but none of them were comfortable with the subject matter. Von Trier was eventually won over by Emily Watson's audition, even though she was a complete unknown in the film industry at the time.

Von Trier initially wanted to film it on the west coast of Jutland, then in Norway, then in Ostende, Belgium, then Ireland before finally settling with Scotland.[9] The exterior scenes were shot in Scotland: the graveyard was built for the film on Isle of Skye; the church is in Lochailort, the harbour in Mallaig, and the beach in Morar.[10] Von Trier chose the Isle of Skye because it was popular with 19th century English romantic painters and writers.[11] The interiors were shot at Det Danske Filmstudie in Lyngby, Denmark.

The helicopter used in the movie, G-BBHM, a Sikorsky S-61-N, was later involved in an emergency landing and fire that destroyed the aircraft but none of the four crew was injured. This occurred at Poole, Dorset on 15 July 2002.[12]Template:Verify source


The film is divided into seven different chapters. Each chapter begins with a different impressionistically filmed panorama title frame featuring early 1970s rock music interludes. Each of these chapters is filmed with a motionless camera, but features movement in the panorama. In the original released film, the epilogue, “Bess' Funeral,” features David Bowie’s “Life on Mars," which was replaced by Elton John's "Your Song" on early home video releases; the more recent Criterion edition restores the Bowie song. The overall style is heavily influenced by the realist Dogme 95 movement, of which von Trier was a founding member, and its grainy images and hand-held photography give it the superficial aesthetic of a Dogme film. However, the Dogme rules demand the use of real locations, whereas many of the locations in Breaking the Waves were constructed in a studio.[citation needed] In addition, the film is set in the past and contains dubbed music, as well as a brief scene featuring CGI, none of which is permitted by the Dogme rules.

Breaking the Waves was received as mainstream cinema, but in reality it was a kind of high budget experimental film. It had elaborated the chapter shots and used handheld camera in a sketchy raw style that followed the actors closely. Breaking the Waves marked an important change in focus. In von Trier's early films, the protagonist is a man, typically a disillusioned idealist whose downfall is furthered by a deceitful, fatal woman. In this film, for the first time the protagonist is a woman, emotional and naive. This will continues in the following films: with the only exception of the comedy, The Boss of It All, all Trier's subsequent films have a female protagonist. Breaking the Waves controversially connects religion with eroticism. The film focuses on sexual perversity and female martyrdom, issues that will continue in Trier's later work and that have challenged critics and commentators, who see the self-sacrificing submissive heroine as basically a misogynist cliche.[13]

The film was made using Panavision equipment. The low-res look of the scenes was obtained by transferring the film to video, and then back to film again. According to von Trier, "what we did was take a style and lay it like a filter over the story. It’s like decoding a television signal when you pay to see a film. Here we encoded the film, and the audience has to decode it. The raw, documentary style that I imposed on the film, which actually dissolves and contradicts it, means that we can accept the story as it is.[14]


Critical response[]

During a show where film personalities listed their top movies of the 1990s, Breaking the Waves was named one of the ten best films of the decade by both critic Roger Ebert and director Martin Scorsese.[15]

Box office[]

Released on November 13, 1996, the film has grossed just over $4 million in the US.[16]


Breaking the Waves won the Grand Prix at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival,[17] the César Award for Best Foreign Film, and three awards at the 1996 European Film Awards, including Film of the Year, International Film Journalists Award, and European Actress of the Year (Watson). Emily Watson was also nominated for the 1996 Academy Award for Best Actress, the 1996 British Academy of Film and Television Arts award and the National Society of Film Critics prize.

Operatic adaptation[]

Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek premiered their operatic adaptation of the film on September 22, 2016, at Opera Philadelphia.[18] The work was called "the most startling and moving new American opera in memory" by parterre box, with Opera News proclaiming that it "stands among the best twenty-first-century American operas yet produced."[19][20]


  1. Lasagna, Roberto; Lena, Sandra (12 May 2003). Lars von Trier. Gremese Editore. p. 124. ISBN 978-88-7301-543-7. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
  2. Goss, Brian Michael (January 2009). Global auteurs: politics in the films of Almodóvar, von Trier, and Winterbottom. Peter Lang. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-4331-0134-2. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
  3. "Breaking the Waves (1996)". Box Office Mojo. 13 November 1996. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  4. Breaking the Waves DVD linear notes. The Criterion Collection. 2014. Spine number 705. page 6.
  5. Criterion notes. p. 7.
  6. Criterion notes. p. 10.
  7. Criterion notes. p. 14.
  8. "Lars von Trier: Pornographer?". Bright Lights Film Journal. Retrieved 12 September 2015.
  9. Criterion notes. p. 14.
  10. Breaking the Waves at Scotland: The Movie Guide.
  11. Criterion notes. p. 14.
  12. [1]
  13. Lars von Trier: The Early Years, by Associate Professor Peter Schepelern
  14. "Lars von Trier on Breaking the Waves". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 12 September 2015.
  15. "Ebert & Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s". Chicago Sun-Times.
  16. "Breaking the Waves – Box Office Data, DVD Sales, Movie News, Cast Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  17. "Festival de Cannes: Breaking the Waves". Retrieved 15 September 2009.


  • Ebbe Villadsen: Danish Erotic Film Classics (2005)
  • Georg Tiefenbach: Drama und Regie (Writing and Directing): Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2010. ISBN 978-3-8260-4096-2.

External links[]

Template:Lars von Trier Template:Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Template:César Award for Best Foreign Film Template:Satellite Award Best Foreign Language Film Template:European Film Award for Best Film Template:Bodil Award for Best Danish Film Template:Guldbagge Award Best Foreign Film