Breaking the Waves (1996)

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Breaking the Waves Poster

At first glance, “Breaking the Waves” may appear to be slow paced and full of unnecessary exposition. However, as the film unfolds, each scene comes together like pictures in a photo book. Protagonist Bess McNeil is an innocent and naive woman, who falls madly in love with a man named Jan Nyman. After the two are married, Jan is sent off to work at an oil rig, leaving Bess all alone. Bess pines for her husband and prays for his safe return to the point where her family and friends call her selfish for not readily accepting circumstances. Tragedy strikes when Jan is badly injured in an accident and is feared to never recover. In order to keep his beloved wife happy (and in a drug induced delusional state), Jan encourages Bess to sleep with other men in order to feel the love and affection that he can not show her. Torn between her devotion to her husband and the strict religious convictions she had been raised with, Bess struggles to fulfill Jan’s wishes and maintain her role as a devoted child of God. Ultimately Bess chooses to serve her husband, believing that God would want her to make him happy. Bess feels no love from her encounters with other men, longing only for the touch of her husband. The task kills her inside, but she lies to Jan, saying that she enjoyed the experiences. She soon finds herself shunned from her community as her attempts to serve her husband, her community and God fall apart and ultimately lead to her exile and death at the hands of a violent gang who sexual assault and murder her. As she prays for guidance, it becomes clear that there are no answers and the choice between being a good wife and a good Christian can not be compromised. We’re given a small solace at the end of the film, when Jan (recovered from his injury) learns of his wife’s death and the loyalty she showed him pays tribute to Bess after the church refuses to show such respect. “Breaking the Waves” is a tragedy of conscience, in which no matter what choice is made, heart break is the inevitable outcome. It show cases the conflict between following the strict and unwavering doctrines of religion and doing what is right in unusual and unforeseeable circumstances.

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