1996, 148 minutes

director.gif (905 bytes)Lars von Trier


Emily Watson - Bess McNeill
Stellan Skarsgård - Jan Nyman

Katrin Cartlidge - Dodo McNeill
Jean-March Barr - Terry
Adrian Rawlins - Dr. Richardson
Jonathan Hackett - Priest
Sandra Voe - Mother
Udo Kier - Sadistic Sailer


13 May 1996 - Cannes Film Festival


Grand Jury Prize - 1996 Cannes Film Festival

Oscar nomination for Emily Watson

Both the film and Ms. Watson  received several  other awards and nominations

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Breaking The Waves follows the life of Bess (Emily Watson), an innocent young woman living in a tightly knit community on Skye. She has led a sheltered life, protected by her family and her recently widowed sister-in-law, but finds happiness when she meets Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oil-rig worker. Despite local opposition, they marry and after a brief but intense period Jan returns to the rig. Bess however cannot cope with being apart and prays to God for Jan to come back to her. Her wishes are cruelly answered when Jan suffers a terrible accident on the rig and returns to Skye.

Convinced he will be paralyzed for the rest of his life, he urges her to find another lover. However, the community feels she is sinning in the eyes of God and she is abandoned and exiled. Even so, her faith leads her to believe that a miracle can bring Jan back.


button_box.gif (205 bytes)DIRECTOR LARS VON TRIER:

"I wanted to do a film about goodness. When I was little, I had a children's book called Golden Heart (a Danish fairytale), which I have a very strong and fond memory of. It was a picture book about a little girl who went out into the woods with pieces of bread and other things in her pocket. But at the end of the book, after she's passed through the woods, she stands naked and without anything. And the last sentence in the book was: 'I'll be fine anyway,' said Golden Heart. It expressed the role of the martyr in its most extreme form. I reread the book several times, even though my father regarded it as the worst trash you could imagine. The story for Breaking the Waves probably has its origin there. Golden Heart is the film's Bess. I also wanted to do a film with a religious motif, a film about miracles. At the same time I wanted to do a completely naturalistic film."

"The original title was Amor Omnie (ie, 'Love is Omnipresent'), the motto Gertrud wanted on her gravestone in Dreyer's film. But when my producer heard that title, he almost hit the roof. He found it difficult to imagine that anyone would want to see a film called Amor Omnie."

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Von Trier discusses a scene

button_box.gif (205 bytes)PRODUCTION NOTES:

At the Danish Film Studios at Lyngby, a church interior was constructed on the biggest sound stage. The wedding reception and all of the hospital interiors were also shot in Denmark. The outdoor scenes were filmed on the isle of Skye, as well as in NW Scotland in the towns of Lochailort, Mallaig and Morar.

button_box.gif (205 bytes)STELLAN TALKS ABOUT:

  • VON TRIER: "I saw Element of Crime in a film festival and I remember thinking, 'This is an interesting man. I'd like to work with this director when he gets interested in people. Breaking the Waves was the most free way I had ever worked on a film. He had a big sign on the set that said 'Make Mistakes', and that's lovely for an actor - that makes you brave."

  • HIS ROLE: "The way I wanted to portray him was different from other characters in love that I've done. Normally when I play a person who is in love, I mix the love with a little narcissism, a little selfishness - all those things we all have in us that are the reason that nothing is ever pure. But this love had to be absolutely pure. That is the key, his longing for the pure emotions... The relationship between Jan and Bess had to feel totally real. And there is just 10 minutes at the beginning of the film to show happy love. And how the hell do you show happy love? It's very hard to do sex scenes so that they turn out well. It's like this: a fuck feels divine, but it looks quite idiotic."

  • THE FILM: "The point of the film isn't to prove that God does or doesn't exist. Rather, it's a fairy tale about the power of love and faith, and it presents an image of pure love we should all aspire to but few of us will ever experience... It's a very strong film, but some people hate it. Some people find the film blasphemous, others think it's misogynistic, while others dismiss it as cheap soap opera... It's very fortunate that Jesus wasn't a woman, because, in that case, they would have thought that the Bible was a really shitty book. It makes absolutely no difference if it was a man or a woman in that role. The film is not about gender. It is about love."

  • EMILY WATSON: "It's incredible how fast she took to the part. She didn't try to be 'professional' or 'skillful' or any of those stupid things people do to be impressive. It was more like she stripped away all the things civilization plants on you, and went back and became a child - with all of a child's naivete and directness...  She was fantastic. I was a little nervous in the beginning, because she was British, which means she had to have other ideas about nakedness and sex scenes than we Scandinavians have, and it was her first film, and it was a woman's part that is written maybe every 20th year. And she was terror stricken. But she knew that if she could do this, she would never need to be afraid again. She showed enormous courage."

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button_box.gif (205 bytes)PRAISE:

"It's easy to understand why Emily Watson was nominated for an Oscar... Backing up Watson is Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, whose tender eyes in the early scenes tell us exactly what Jan sees in the childlike Bess."    ...Orlando Sentinel

"Ms. Watson creates Bess with a devastating immediacy, and she deeply rewards the camera's penetrating gaze. Also very good is Mr. Skarsgård as the sturdy masculine presence so vital to the story."    ...NY Times

"Stellan  Skarsgård as Jan is appropriately bearish when vertical, and wheedling when horizontal."  ...National Review

Powerful, well-crafted, consummately acted.  Played by Stellan Skarsgård, big, long-haired Jan is visceral and life-affirming, drinking and listening to rock music with his pals."  ...Movie Magazine International

Emily Watson deserved all the praise she received for her outstanding portrayal of Bess.  Also, a word of praise for Stellan Skarsgård, who plays Bess's husband Jan: he takes a severely underwritten role (his character has about ten lines total) and gives a sense of the character's presence and good humor."   ...Christopher Roberson

"As the deeply disturbed Bess, British stage actress Emily Watson turns in an award-worthy performance... The supporting players, including Stellan Skarsgård and Katrin Cartlidge, do fine jobs, but none captures the lens the way Watson does."   ...Film critic James Berardinelli

"Von Trier sets up Bess for tragedy and his movie for a miracle...  Bess' introduction to sex by Jan, forcefully played by Skarsgård, has an uncommon carnal intimacy.  ...Rolling Stone

"Watson's performance is mesmerizing...  What does make Breaking The Waves worth seeing are the performances."   ...Toronto Sun

"Stellan Skarsgård is just right as Jan, a worldly-wise man who delights in his wife's large reserves of wonder, enthusiasm, and devotion."  ...Spirituality and Health

"There are other performances worth noting here, particularly Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge as Bess' sister-in-law and Adrian Rawlins as a sympathetic doctor. ...Deseret News

"Von Trier encourages his actors to lay bare their emotions for the integrity of the film and consequently he draws sterling, naturalistic performances from the strong international cast. As well, much of the dialogue seems improvised, which brings unforced emotions and a feeling of spontaneity to the film... Skarsgård does well with a difficult part, convincingly portraying Jan's frustration and bitterness."   ...Film critic Greg King

"Watson is central and impressive, while Skarsgård brings a weight to the role which imparts believability to Bess' actions. Jan isn't exactly perfect yet he isn't malicious either, just confused, selfish and desperate - a tricky balance."    ...Movie Reviews UK

"Bess is a naive Scottish maid who falls in love with an Oilrig worker Jan, played to perfection by Stellan Skarsgård."

"Stellan Skarsgård plays Jan as an imperfect yet admirable husband, the kind of robust fellow who can truly demand your sympathy when he's laid up in a hospital bed. His playful physicality in the early scenes is key to the rest of his performance, since we need something to remember him by once he's supine and under the influence of drugs and depression."    ...Deep Focus

"Newcomer Emily Watson carries the film with her riveting Oscar-nominated portrayal of Bess... Watson gets ample backup from Danish veteran Stellan Skarsgård as the understated Jan."    ...Montreal Mirror

"Von Trier... explores territory of the human soul here that hasn't been charted as boldly since Ingmar Bergman's heyday. The purity of Watson's performance should win every heart it touches... He also draws fine work out of Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge as Bess' concerned sister-in-law and Adrian Rawlins as a skeptical doctor."   ...L.A. Daily News

"Von Trier's selection of Watson is inspired. The young English actress, in her first film, gives a mind-boggling performance. Supporting her is a veteran cast led by Skarsgård, a well-known Scandinavian stage actor, who gives a great performance as a gentle lug, paralyzed by fate."    ...The Record

"Emily Watson's portrayal of Bess' deep love for her oil-rigger husband and her profound faith in God is an extraordinary characterization of a round-eyed innocent... Stellan Skarsgård is nicely cast as the gentle, lusty husband."   ...The Courier-Journal

"Spurred by Watson the remaining cast perform magnificently, especially Skarsgård, who has to do so much flat on his back. Cartlidge's plainly decent Dodo, trapped between love for Bess and a man she doesn't trust, affirms her position as one of our finest actresses."     ...The Edge

"The huge and insistent close-ups draw the most from the actors. Skarsgård and Cartlidge in particular are excellent. As for Watson, she is superb, showing us both the desperation of love and the terrible vulnerability of faith."   ...Mail & Guardian

"Breaking the Waves has a sense of timelessness indigenous to many movies about religious faith, the flame of passion and all-consuming love. It is reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc or Alain Cavalier's 1986 Therese."       ...Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"In the production notes on the DVD, the actors mention the freedom they enjoyed while filming - being able to improvise within a scene and not being required to hit certain "marks". This technique certainly paid off, for Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson portray Jan and Bess with naturalistic performances that are breathtaking in their emotional range and realism.   ...DVD Corner

"More than anything, though, Breaking the Waves is an experience, a movie that invites you, with moment-to-moment intimacy, to share the psychic space of its characters, to enter a world in which love, madness, sex, physical paralysis, glitter rock, and the presence of God flow in and out of each other."    ...Entertainment Weekly

"The main attraction is the tremendous performance by Emily Watson as the simple young woman... But there is also stunning work by co-stars Katrin Cartlidge and Stellan Skarsgård and the delirious cinematography of Robby Muller. A profoundly spiritual and haunting movie."  ...Newsday

"It is, quite simply, a masterpiece - a film that touches every emotional base while it refuses us a safe haven on any of them... A virgin, and completely naive about sex, Bess falls in love with a strapping oil-rig worker, played with tenderness as well as worldliness by Stellan Skarsgård."   ...The Virginian Pilot

"Von Trier has forged a myth of modem romantic faith that could haunt almost anyone into believing."    ...Sight and Sound

"Perfect love and unshakable faith are defined with expressive brilliance in Breaking the Waves... The chapter title segments are breathtaking grace notes -- and unlike anything I've ever seen on screen... Von Trier also guides his cast to stunning performances that lend even more reality to this bizarre fable."   ...Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

"Daring, disturbing, frightening, hypnotic, romantic, haunting - take your pick...   it claims the attention of the audience - with a story both gritty and otherworldly, an arresting visual style, an array of flawless supporting actors and one inspired star turn."  ...Cincinnati Enquirer