When you gaze at all the wonders that “Breaking the Waves” possesses you have to submit to Emily Watson’s eyes. Are they the most exhilarating orbs owned by a British actor since Michael Caine’s? They dance with the light of sexual liberation, sparkle like they have discovered all the secrets of the universe; they can’t wait to divulge all the enigmas they’ve unpicked to anyone that cares to listen.
In this case Watson’s eyes belong to Bess McNeill, her innocent debut who speaks directly with God through her own voice. Bess lives in a remote Scottish community still coming to terms with the capitalist windfall of North Sea Oil in the 1970s. The Calvinist church dominates the locals, seemingly impervious from the tide of feminism breaking over the sea wall of the rest of British Isles.
The church elders refuse to let women speak in the house of God, that right reserved for the men who often condemn the deceased to hell at their funerals, in rituals that resemble Satanic beachside burials rather than Christian charity and forgiveness. Bess has a history of psychological disorders but are they real, a symptom of her faith or simply the grief she had the temerity to display when her brother died?
Bess’s heart of gold is at odds with the dour congregation much to the chagrin of the church elders. She is quite irrepressible, a saintly oddity that brings a smile to the face in the same way when you hear Morecombe and Wise singing, “Bring Me Sunshine.” Who could resist? Her hat, scarf and motor scooter are trademarks as recognisable as Eric’s glasses and Ernie’s plays; a sitcom character if ever there was one whose situation is far from funny.
“Can you think of anything of real value that the outsiders have brought with them?” warns The Minister. Bess likes their music, Bowie, T. Rex and Leonard Cohen, listening to the radio under the bed covers like a teenager, but she likes oilrig worker Jan better. Jan brings wild-haired freedom, laughter and uninhibited sexual desire. Bess and Jan’s marriage is metaphorically spat on by the community, those Old Testament stares, those glass crushing hands ready to bring the wrath of a vengeful God onto a defenceless soul.
Amongst the hard rock and rain Bess and Jan become one over precious days of bliss and rapture. Lazy, scrappy montages jump cut and capture their joyous adventure but reality bites in the form of a helicopter ready to whisk Jan back to the oilrig. Bess is distraught, a wailing Banshee gnashing her teeth at the cruelty of heavy industry. Why should her man depart for the sea? Deprive her of her ravenous desires, her spiritual awakening that channels God’s love directly through her?
To Bess her conversations with God are wholly real, a strident, mean deity who mocks and sneers at his innocent vassal. When Bess becomes impatient for Jan’s return, counting down the days like a child trying to fast forward to Christmas Day she prays all the harder. God listens with savage irony and flies Jan home early to Bess but paralysed from a horrific accident on the rig. The hospital beckons and like Joan of Arc Bess is betrayed by her faith.
The newlyweds become symbiotic, as Jan deteriorates Bess spirals into Biblical depression, her world torn asunder by her Scandinavian giant’s fall. Bess’s kindly sister-in-law Dodo fears for the worst, fears history repeating itself. Alongside Bess’s besotted doctor, Dodo is her only other champion fighting against the insular community and their petty vision of faith and devotion. When Jan, out of it on painkillers makes his twisted demands of Bess, Dodo tries her best to protect her.
Bess believes wholeheartedly that matrimony is “when two people are joined in God.” Her relationship with Jan is a conduit to God’s love and by taking lovers and describing her exploits to her husband she can save him and honour her obligations to God. Jan is her test, her trial from The Almighty and Bess aims to pass it with flying colours, but as her actions become more reckless in her mission to save him, the physical and mental violence enacted on her becomes ever more monstrous.
Von Trier believes religion is a substitute for childhood rituals that help us retain control over cosmic events that are beyond our capabilities to do anything about. The director was terrified of the atom bomb as a boy and Bess’s desperate situation is as apocalyptic as the threat of nuclear annihilation. She is De Sade’s “Justine” exploited and humiliated and ultimately struck down because of her unwavering belief in a merciful God that grants the most perverted of miracles after her selfless sacrifice.
Framed by a series of stunning Per Kirkeby panoramas, “Breaking The Waves” is marshaled into strict chapters that are at odds with the quasi Dogme 95 restrictions Von Trier imposed on himself (and of course broke). The chapters in case Bess on her fateful path, a rigidity that can’t be broken no matter how pure of heart she is. Kirkeby’s visions force us to look upon God’s majesty whether we believe in him or not, making us contemplate our insignificant existence in the universe and how we can sometimes break the waves of conformity that cover so much of our planet.