Breaking the Waves (1996)

In Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier explores what might have happened if God didn’t stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. No, this is not a film about patricide or human sacrifice. But it is about extreme expresions of faith. Parts of the film reminded me of Kiekegaard and It’s a Wonderful Life.


This movie is about faith, love, and how these two things can trascend understanding and reason. There aren’t many films that deal with these themes, particularly in a blatantly Christian way (although people may dispute the Christian part). Why aren’t there more films with more sophisticated and serious Christian characters?

First of all, Emily Watson is fabulous in this. What an expressive face she has. And boy, does she know how to use it. The look of wonder, innocence and joy in her face is just perfect for this film. She’s definitely one of my favorite actors.

Stellan Skarsgaard is also terrific in this film. Both he and Watson have the kind chemistry that makes you believe the passion and love between these two characters. Stellan has an ordinary look, but there’s something charismatic about him. He’s sort of like the Norwegian equivalent of Tim Robbins.

Besides the performance of these two actors, I found the film interesting because of its exploration of the mysterious aspects of God and religion, specifically when God asks someone to do something that not only seems illogical, but also immoral. Skarsgard’s character, Jan, marries Bess (Watson) and they seem happy. When an injury leaves him paralyzed, he tells Bess to sleep with other men. Since he will never be able to have sex again, he wants to experience it vicariously through Bess’ experiences. Bess is appalled by the request and refuses.

But in a series of prayers to God–to which Bess replies using the voice of God–God says to her that she must prove her love for Jan. She must not be selfish. Now, to my ears this is appalling, crude and inconsistent with my understanding of God, but there are two things that the film communicated to me.

One is that each individual’s understanding of God is imperfect, particularly when we are young in our faith. Our understanding of God is often grotesque, even though we may not think so at the time. Someone would say that our understanding of God should not go against the teachings in the Bible, particularly teachings that seem clear-cut. You would be very hard pressed to find justification in the Bible for what Jan requests of Bess. This is part of the mystery. I understand that Kierkegaard (using the example of God’s request to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac) in his book, Fear and Trembling addresses a similar situation. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the book, but I do remember him saying something to the effect that when a person feels God is asking him or her to do something clearly immoral, if he or she is to behave immorally, he or she must do so with humility, with “fear and trembling.” To do otherwise would be demonic. (Edit: To do act in immoral way out of faith while fully recognizing the immorality of the act–paradoxically–requires a lot of faith, an extremely passionate faith.)

The second thing I got out of the film was that when you obey God, when you give of yourself to God, God honors that–even if you’ve misunderstood God in some way. Christianity is ultimately about loving people, not about laws. It’s about obeying God, not just following a code or laws.

The film won an award an Cannes (one of the first Cannes award winners that I have liked), and made, both, Ebert’s and Scorsese’s top ten films of the 90’s. This time they’re all correct. 🙂

2 Responses to “Breaking the Waves (1996)”

  1. Reid

    Hey, I didn’t know that the entry would be listed when you originally typed it!

  2. Reid

    Just watched this recently, and I wanted to add some comments:

    • This is as good as I remember it–so much so that I’m sure it would make my top ten favorite film’s list. (I’d probably give it a score of 94.)
    • In my first viewing of the film, I had a problem with Jan’s (Skarsgaard) request to Bess. It just was weird. In the second viewing, I interpreted his request as a way to not be trapped with him; for her to enjoy and live her life. Perhaps for Jan, sex was essential of 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.
    • Watson’s performance is still shimmering. She’s so open–her spirit is bursting forth. In a way, it’s similar to Maria Falconetti’s performance in Dreyer’s Joan D’Arc film. You see an impassioned soul coming forth in both performances. And both performances are among the best I have ever seen.

    I asked Penny–and I’ll ask again–if she thinks this is a Christian film. I’d say it is, but not without controversy.

    Also, what should Christians make of Bess and her faith? Is she someone we should emulate? Why or why not?

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