Breaking the Waves is a study in contrasts. Lars von Trier, the writer (along with Peter Asmussen) and director of the film, consciously abides by many traditional aspects of filmmaking while rebelling against others. Ib Bonderbjerg characterizes the film as “an erotic melodrama that marks von Trier’s turn towards classical genres” and Jack Stevenson writes: “A hyper-realistic style was used to tell a very melodramatic story. This was a novel approach and gave audiences the feeling that they were seeing and experiencing something new. The traditional glossy style of the melodrama had always allowed viewers the luxury if maintaining a comfortable distance from the pain the characters felt. Not here. Melodrama was spacious and epic and entertaining, but Breaking the Waves was claustrophobic and uncomfortable and unavoidably engaging. There was no safety zone here. This was not a comfortable movie” (97). With both form and content, von Trier tricks the audience. He wants to stir emotions.
As von Trier was heading into postproduction on Breaking the Waves he and director Thomas Vinterberg outlined a “Vow of Chastity” against what they saw as the corruption of film by
Von Trier’s camera work is one way that he manages to shake the audience and is a step towards his Dogme work. Rule #3 reads: “The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).” The camera in Waves isn’t strictly handheld like von Trier’s Idioterne or Vinterberg’s Festen. Jack Stevenson writes, “The hyperactive and fluid shooting style used on The Kingdom would again be employed on Breaking the Waves, but this time with a hand-held 35 mm CinemaScope camera. Some static long shots were used to give the bleak Scottish landscape a prominent presence in the film, but these fixed shots were few” (95).
Von Trier is also being unconventional with his choice of location, language, and identity with respect to Breaking the Waves. He has commented that European film is what means the most to him and he studied movements like the French New Wave (which was one of the inspirations for the Dogme 95) and directors like Ingmar Bergman. But he sees Europe as linked;
Like most countries (other than the United States), von Trier’s native Denmark has governmentally subsidized film production, and it’s no surprise that these organizations (especially the Danish Film Institute) want movies to be made about Denmark, in Denmark, and in Danish. Mette Hjort writes, “I have suggested that most Danish film-makers would be reluctant to work primarily with the highly topical theme of Denmark, yet Danish politicians, producers and the film-makers themselves repeatedly emphasize a commitment to producing films that in some sense are about Danish realities” (108). Or as the Danish Film Institute itself states:
The point of the Danish Film Institute is to be the key site for ensuring that Danes are presented with artistically qualified offerings in an increasingly global media culture. The Institute’s support policy is to guarantee the availability of films that express and sustain Danish culture, language, and identity. (103)
This setting is where von Trier evokes his reality. Growing up in an atheistic and radical family von Trier learned of the harshness of the world right away. He explains, “My parents were eager to tell me that Santa Claus didn’t exist. When everything must be so explainable and open, it is hard to be a child. It was only as an adult that I could permit myself the luxury of believing in Santa Claus. I was taught there was no deeper meaning to be found in existence. When one is dead, one is dead. A person is just a pile of molecules” (9). And it is in this same vein that von Trier attacks issues like religion and sexuality in Breaking the Waves. The tight-knit Christian community in Waves harbors reality and freedom. It pushes one down even though it claims to raise one up.
Bess (played by Emily Watson) can only escape her community when she falls in love with an outsider Jan (played by Stellan Skarsgard) and he teaches her the freedom of sexuality. They have sex in the bathroom at their wedding reception and continue to over and over again up until Jan’s accident. It is, of course, at this point that he encourages Bess to have sex with others and tell him about it. He says that he cannot live without sex and the film cannot either. It is sexuality that tells the story. Von Trier states, “Like Freud I see sexuality as a drive that really means a lot to most humans…I live out a lot of my sexuality through my films, instead of behaving promiscuously” (213).
Originally conceived as an erotic film, Breaking the Waves shows a blatant, ultra-real sexuality with a melodramatic background. This emphasis on the harshness of sex and its relation to everyday life is hard for most people to take. So, after a couple of script rewrites it was decided that Bess could not enjoy her sex with strangers; that would be too much for viewers. Critics and viewers alike responded were uncomfortable with Jan’s wishes. Was he doing this for Bess or for himself? And, in the
Von Trier says:
The film expresses a negative interpretation of religion. I’m a Catholic, but I’m and auto-didact when it comes to religion. I was baptized, but I don’t know anything about anything, precisely because I’m from a family of atheistic believes, in the sense that for my family the idea that religion was deeply prohibited was itself a religion.
It’s a film about a religious problematic. Although the film isn’t an introduction to religion, it is an expression of my religiosity, but it’s also, once again, an attempt to provoke myself. I establish a problematic and take things to their logical conclusion, which involves asking whether a sacrifice would be sexual. We know about the sacrifices of saints, so why couldn’t a sexual sacrifice be a saintly sacrifice? That’s precisely what Bess’ sacrifice becomes, for she fucks her way into heaven. Yes, this is powerful stuff, but it’s all very consistent. (220).
And von Trier captures this hypocrisy of religion wonderfully. The community (including Bess’ family) that calls itself Christian abandons Bess in her time of need because she has become “unclean” and is, in some ways, responsible for her death. When she is killed by the sadists on the boat, it is what most would consider an unreligious death. But von Trier makes Bess his martyr. She sacrifices herself for Jan’s recovery. Here, von Trier is admitting to the existence of a higher authority, but it is one that is almost anti-religious. This God is a God that accepts Bess’ sexual sacrifice, cures Jan, and plays bells for her when she is caste into the ocean. He is an odd God.
Bess’ God is just that - he is the ultimate personal God. In fact, he is part of Bess - as is evidenced by her frequent talks with him. Here, von Trier portrays Bess in a prayer position praying and, usually, arguing with herself. In her first conversation, “God” says, “But remember to be a good girl Bess for I giveth and I taketh away.” But von Trier is being deliberately ambiguous here and throughout the whole of the film. What does good mean to this God? It cannot be the common Christian conception of good if Bess’s last actions lead to miraculous occurrences. God is seemingly is the one who backs Jan’s requests up. God says, “Prove to me that you love him and I’ll let him live.” It seems that von Trier wants to say that what is good is totally giving yourself to another person even if this means dying for them. At one point Bess says, “Jan and me, we have a spiritual contact.” Near the end of the film, the leaders of the community are asking Doctor Richardson for Bess’ cause of death and he initially replies that Bess died because she suffering from being good. But it’s von Trier’s version of goodness; it’s what it means to him. Even though the Dogme guidelines have prevented the director from being credited, von Trier is an auteur at heart. He wants to get his message across, he wants to redefine, and, ultimately, he wants to provoke:
“You can always keep on provoking yourself. That’s the advantage of that approach. If that’s the strategy here, then it can still be used in the future. Right now I don’t know whether there’s a genre that I’d find challenging, but I suspect I’ll think of something” (223).