Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves

This movie may have done me permanent psychological damage!  It is incredibly disturbing on many levels.

I’m sad that this is what gave the wonderful Emily Watson her break.  She deserved better.  I saw it when it first came out in 1996 and I am definitely not going to watch it again for the purpose of this blog (or for any other reason).

Even people who don’t have a problem with the disability portrayal had trouble dealing with the weird pacing and style.

Since I have blocked as much of it from my mind as I can, I will give you another reviewer’s take.  This is DevoGirl’s assessment:

Breaking the Waves
no stars
Directed by art-house darling Lars von Trier, so already you know it’s going to be more painful than entertaining. Bess (Emily Watson) is a simple-minded girl living in a tiny town in the north of Scotland. She falls in madly in love and marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) who has come to the town to work on an offshore oil rig. Shortly after they are married, he breaks his neck on the job. Medical care in the tiny town is limited so he spends the rest of the movie in bed, clinging to life. Bess is of course convinced he will recover, and nurses him herself. She doesn’t seem to notice that the combination of a head injury and drugs has made him insane, so when he encourages her to have sex with every man she meets because he can’t have her himself, she does so. This movie is creepy and gross. It’s all about style and ideas, and nothing real about SCI. Jan’s injury is just a plot device, nothing more. Plus he’s not even attractive. We here at Devo Labs were unable to determine why this movie was so highly acclaimed. We hated it.

The main issue for me is this part: “he encourages her to have sex with every man she meets because he can’t have her himself.”  No person is too disabled to engage in sexual activity of some kind and this movie perpetuates the idea that a high level spinal cord injury automatically means no sex.  I assure you, that is not at all true.


  1. Melissa
    Apr 23, 2011

    “No person is too disabled to engage in sexual activity of some kind and this movie perpetuates the idea that a high level spinal cord injury automatically means no sex. I assure you, that is not at all true.”


    Go Ruth!!! 🙂

  2. Kim
    Apr 26, 2011

    I am so happy that one of “us” finally has found the courage to come out and speak openly and passionately like you have done! I am married nearly a decade to a t-12 complete paraplegic and am asked about sex by complete strangers quite frequently. It seems to be a universal belief that disability equals asexuality….if only people knew! I would put our sex life up against any other couples anyday…as I know that ours is just as (or possibly more) exciting and passionate as anyone elses. I believe the disability has heightened ours due to the intensity that comes directly from dealing with his injury and the trust he has in me to understand that though things may be different about our sex life, things can also be better than anyone could imagine…dev or not ;).

  3. Devodiva88
    Apr 26, 2011

    I do not like this film either. I found it weird and annoying.

    But I do think that it´s much more about Bess´ development as a sexual being than it is about Jan´s disability. His disability was just a means to push her along.

    • RuthMadison
      Apr 26, 2011

      It’s true, and honestly I was probably too young when I watched it to really “get” the whole thing. But like I said, no way am I going back to watch it again! lol.

  4. Susanne C
    Jul 8, 2014

    Being Scandinavian, I might be more adapted to these kinds of films. It is filmed by handheld camera and that make gives it a documentary feel.
    Bess grows up in a extreme oppressive religious society. At funerals only men can attend, there are no church bells. Suicides and fallen persons are not even buried in the churchyard. Its a society that would have made Oliver Cromwell proud.

    Jan comes from the outside and in many ways open a new world for Bess. She is heartbroken when he has to go back to the rig and when one of his friends comes home on sick leave, she pray to god that something should happen to Jan so he can come home at sick leave to.
    Then the accident happens. Naturally she blames her self, believing it happened because she asked God to get Jan back.

    Bess conversations with God is amazing and disturbing because she answer for god making her voice deeper.

    Is Jan insane? Is his brain filling up with fluids? Is it the drugs? I have no idea, perhaps he in his confused mind believe that she should not go without the sex she enjoyed so much with him. From the society she grew up in, it seems like a “light of, under the cover, socks on, missionary position, two minutes duty sex to produce children” society.

    Is he aware what he dos at times, it seems so.

    Jan Nyman: [he writes in a paper] Let me die. I’m evil in head!
    Bess McNeill: I love you no matter what is in your head!

    She dos as he say and for some reason, he seems to improve when she succeed in having sex with strangers, and become worse when she fails.

    Bess McNeill: I don’t make love with them, I make love with Jan and I save him from dying.

    She is judge as the whore by her surroundings, its also revealed she been institutionalised for mental problems in the past. But is that because she was mental ill, or because she “feels to much” for the cold, distanced society she lives in?

    The story is not about Jan but about Bess, her sacrifice no matter how misguided, wrong, horrible and heartbroken it was.

    Yes it is disturbing, very much so. Bess is pushed over the edge, not only by Jan, but by her family and surroundings. It is in many ways, the perfect storm and its as ruthless as a storm in the north Atlantic.

    • RuthMadison
      Aug 25, 2014

      You know, I think you are so right that it has a lot to do with it not being an American film. It’s definitely written and shot in a way that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. But that’s just my own bias!

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