I hope I don’t offend anyone with deep religious beliefs with what I’m about to write. My intent is not to be glib or arch in any way. My point is that sometimes you can find a deeply spiritual message in what may seem like the unlikeliest of sources.
Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” is an art-house film from 1996 that garnered some rave reviews and awards that year (including a Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, along with an Oscar nomination for lead actress Emily Watson). However, it’s also a film that polarized many. Like many of Von Trier’s films, “Waves” is a film that people either deeply love and deeply hate. I am firmly in the first category. The description below will contain several spoilers, but there’s no way to discuss why this film is important to me without discussing them…
“Waves” is the tale of a young Scottish woman named Bess (played by Watson) who has some deep psychological issues. She comes from a strict Calvinist religious community that frowns upon her marriage to a Norweigian oil rig worker named Jan (played by Stellan Skarsgard). Jan has to frequently spend time away from Bess because of his job, which causes her great distress. She prays for Jan to be returned home and the next day, Jan becomes paralyzed from an accident on the oil rig. He no longer can walk and can no longer function sexually. Jan urges Bess to seek out other men and tell him about it. Bess refuses because she loves him, but his condition deteriorates and he tells her that if she has sex with other men, his condition will improve. Bess believes these actions are the will of God and starts to do what Jan asks her to, even though she doesn’t want to. Her encounters make her the scorn of the village, but believing she is doing the right thing, continues to do what Jan asks her, leading to the ultimate sacrifice for her husband. A literal miracle then occurs … though, not necessarily the kind that happy endings are made of.
On the surface, “Waves” seems like a depressing, twisted, misogynistic, sexual melodrama with no redeeming value. And … some of that is not entirely inaccurate, especially when “Waves” is seen in conjunction with Von Trier’s other films (“Dancer in the Dark,” “Anti Christ”), which actually make “Waves” look like “Love Actually.”
But there is more to “Waves” than meets the eye, which becomes more apparent once you see the ending. In case you didn’t deduce what the movie is a metaphor for … “Waves” is the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind, albeit told in a modern context. Except that the Christ in “Waves” is the human Christ of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a real person who doesn’t know if he is strong enough to carry out God’s will, but does it anyway. The physical and mental tortures that Bess suffers parallel the crucifixion. One could potentially see “Waves” as a brutal Marquis de Sade-like satire on the story of Christ. However, I see the opposite.
I first watched “Breaking the Waves” on video on a Friday night, when I was very tired and only expected to watch a half hour before going to sleep. I not only raptly watched the entire 2 hour and 36 minute film that night, but was so shaken and moved by what I had seen, I couldn’t sleep for at least two hours after it was over.
There’s a lot of people who positively hate this film and I can understand why. As you can imagine, “Waves” is not a big hit among feminists. But it made me understand the Christ story in a way I never had before. It was also one of Martin Scorsese’s 10 favorite films of the 1990s.
On a side note, the soundtrack (featuring T. Rex, Elton John, Deep Purple, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, Thin Lizzy, among others) is one of the best rock soundtracks ever assembled for a film.