“BREAKING THE WAVES”— Sex and Spiritual Transcendence

breaking the waves

“Breaking the Waves”

Sex and Spiritual Transcendence

Amos Lassen

Bess (Emma Watson) received an Oscar nomination for her performance in “Breaking the Waves”. She plays a simple newlywed in small village in Scotland and makes herself a martyr after her husband, Jan, (Stellan Skarsgard) is paralyzed in an accident on an oilrig. What we see is an examination of the “expansiveness of faith and its limits”. The film portrays the conflict between dark religion, which preaches the fear of God, and light religion, which believes in the love of God, and director Lars von Trier very wisely doesn’t question religion. Instead he employs the conflict as a tool by which to examine how love and goodness, leads to self-sacrifice and ultimately the martyrdom of Bess.

Beneath the camouflage of allusion and homage, is a perverse love story, portraying the transformation of Bess from shy innocence to self-sacrificing sinner, thereby attacking our conventions of normality and goodness. Only Lars von Trier would dare to turn something as beautiful as innocent love into a perverse sadomasochistic relationship. By placing religion in the background, no one questions blind faith in religion, but instead asks, why Bess seeks humiliation and personal degradation to satisfy the wishes of Jan. It is through Bess that von Trier is setting self imposed slavery, either by religion or by love, up against each other, thereby examining the conflict of dark vs. light religion, and ultimately showing us, that there is a God and that he is an okay guy, who understands us more than we give him credit.

 Watson plays Bess as a virginal lass living in a remote village in Scotland during the 1970s. Bess shocks her strict Calvinist community — its church doesn’t even feature the vanity of bells — by marrying a lusty Scandinavian oil rigger, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), who suffers a paralyzing accident that leads Bess to have degrading sex with strangers and Watson’s luminous portrayal goes straight to the heart.

“Breaking the Waves” won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes. Bess’ introduction to sex by Jan, forcefully played by Skarsgard, has an uncommon carnal intimacy. She rubs his belly, brushes her fingers through his pubic hair and plays with his penis as if she’s just discovered screwing, which, of course, she has. Her mother (Sandra Voe) and friend (Katrin Cartlidge) put her fixation down to simple-mindedness. But sex has liberated Bess. Her happiness with Jan is uncontained. In her talks with God — she does his voice in a deep register — Bess is afraid that she will be punished for loving too much.

When Jan has his accident that belief is reinforced. He asks her to help him get off by having sex with other men and telling him the details. Horrified, she obeys, thinking that her devotion will cure him. When an attempt to seduce Jan’s handsome doctor (Adrian Rawlins) fails, she jerks off an old man on a bus and takes up hooking in hot pants on a trawler that is run by a sadist (Udo Kier). Von Trier sets up Bess for tragedy and his movie for a miracle.

The opening shot of the film lingers on the face of an unknown woman as she registers first pride, then tipsy pleasure, then and anxiety that some secret possession will be snatched away. The woman’s mousey-brown hair and knitted cap set the action squarely in the early 1970s. Here is Bess, a sweet, virginal, and possibly simple-minded naïf who is called before the town elders, an unforgiving huddle of bug-eyed men with white beards. It seems she has fallen in love with Jan, a worldly Swede who works at an offshore oilrig. The elders’ disapproval notwithstanding, they are dead set on marrying. From here you are totally possessed by the film and Watson who gives a stellar performance.

Later, Bess prays to God to send Jan home from the rig, and God grants her wish in the form of a crippling blow to his skull. Jan, now a quadriplegic on painkillers, asks Bess to take a lover or two and tell her adventures to him.  We are not sure if he wants to set her free, or if the drugs temporarily turned him into a crazy sadist? Either way, she’ll do anything to help. So, after failing to seduce a kind doctor, she begins riding buses and plunging her hand into the pockets of surprised but grateful strangers.

Telling anything else ruins the story so let me say that this is a rare film that transports us to the depths of passion.