Breaking the Waves
Breaking the Waves
reviewed by Greta Christina
Constant Readers of this fine publication will surely remember the numerous occasions that I've gassed on in these pages about the conflict between form and content. (Whaddya mean, you don't remember? You don't take every word I've ever written here immediately to heart? What sort of Constant Readers are you, anyway? Sheesh.) Anyway...the balancing act of doing both art criticism and social criticism, of looking at what a movie says in addition to how well it says it, can be tricky as hell. I've never quite known how to handle it when a dumb, crappily made movie expresses a view of sex that I applaud, or when a generally well-made film has a moral to the story that gives me hives. Most of the time I enjoy this job immensely -- I find it worthy and valuable and an immense hoot -- but it does sometimes feel like walking a tightrope.
Well, I feel like that tightrope just snapped. This one, folks, is a toughie. In just about every artistic sense, Breaking the Waves is an exquisite movie, quite possibly a brilliant one. The story is inventive and imaginative, one that I've never seen or heard before. The dialogue is clear and expressive, and the visual feel is both stark and lush. And the acting -- particularly the acting of the lead actress Emily Watson -- is phenomenal. This truly is an exceptional movie.
And it gave me the creeps. Big time.
Here's the story. (Yes, I'm going to give away the ending. Constant Readers should recall that I almost always give away the ending. It's a compulsion or something: Critics Who Give Away Endings And The Readers Who Love Them. Deal with it, okay?) As the movie begins, Bess (Emily Watson), an innocent, sensitive, sweet-natured, possibly crazy young woman living in a remote community on the north coast of Scotland, is getting married to Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an older and more experienced man who works on an oil rig. Bess is a deeply religious woman, a member of a strict and rigid Calvinist church, but she's far more passionate and lively than the other members of her community, and she has a deeply personal relationship with God, talking with Him aloud at great length. (The conversations with God, by the way, are some of the most inventive and moving scenes in the film. Bess takes both sides of the conversation, speaking for herself in a meek, beseeching voice with upraised eyes, and speaking for God with a stern, deep voice and a dark frown.)
Bess and Jan's marriage begins sweetly and well, with a playful intensity and a joyous, heartfelt, delightful eroticism that is very much at the heart of their love. But soon Jan has to leave Bess to go back to work on the oil rig, and the separation leaves Bess distraught and miserable. She prays fervently for God to return Jan home to her. Either by a terrible coincidence or in answer to her prayers, Jan is injured in a horrible accident on the oil rig; he may die, and he will almost certainly be paralyzed from the neck down for life.
Now here's where the weird sex stuff comes in. Realizing that he will never move again, Jan is plunged into despair and guilt: despair over his condition, guilt because his condition means that he and Bess will never make love again. Wanting for her to be free and to continue enjoying the sensual pleasure she has only recently discovered, he encourages her to have sex with other men and to tell him about it.
Bess is horrified at the idea -- she wants only Jan, and feels that the infidelity would betray her devotion to Jan and her own religious ideals. But Jan convinces her that fucking other men and telling him about it will help him recover; and Bess, devoted to Jan and wanting nothing more than his recovery, embarks on a series of appallingly grim, joyless, and dangerous sexual explorations. She despises what she is doing, it alienates her from her family and community, and it begins to destroy her spirit bit by bit. But she is convinced that Jan's accident was her fault; and even more importantly, she is convinced that Jan's request is a test from God of her love, a trial to prove what she is willing to endure in order to save his life. In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save Jan, she eventually offers herself up to men whom she knows are violent and dangerous. Mercifully, we don't see exactly what happens, but we do see the result. Bess is brutally fucked and beaten, and her injuries kill her. And upon her death, Jan miraculously recovers. He is up and walking in time for Bess's funeral.
Like I said -- an inventive and imaginative story. I've never seen anything quite like it before. Watching it was a very weird experience -- feeling my mouth hang open in awe, and at the same time feeling my skin crawl.
Now, a lot of what gives me the creeps about this movie is the overall depressing and unpleasant tone of most of the sexual encounters. And boy, howdy, is it ever depressing. I haven't seen such dismal, unhappy fucking in a good long time (and yes, I've seen quite a bit of mainstream porn). But what bothers me even more than the extreme grimness of the sexuality is the idea that Goodness = Martyrdom. The moral vision of the movie seems to be that being a good person means self-sacrifice, even when it means going against your most deeply-held convictions, and even when it means your death.
Now, I'm certainly not going to argue that being a good person doesn't ever involve sacrifice and self-denial and giving up things that are important to you. In fact, one of the crucial tests of goodness (in my own damn opinion, anyway) is an ability to balance out your own needs and wishes against the needs and wishes of others; the ability to see, from an objective view outside your own life, that your own need for immediate sex is less important than your spouse's need for you to keep your promises, or that your own need for power and luxury is less important than your employees' need for a safe workplace, or that your own need for money is less important than the gas station attendant's need to not be shot in the head.
But Breaking the Waves isn't just saying that being good sometimes requires self-sacrifice. It's saying that being good is the same thing as self-sacrifice. It's saying that the latter is the proof, even the definition, of the former.
And I find that extremely creepy. I find it especially creepy in a sexual context, and a sexual context is where this movie places its moral dilemma. And I find it even more especially creepy in a sexual context where the dilemma and the self-sacrifice is placed squarely on the woman's shoulders. I am tired beyond expression of the notion that performing sexual acts that she finds loathsome and repugnant in order to please and obey her husband is the sign of goodness and virtue in a woman. It...well, it makes my skin crawl.
I suppose it might be possible to interpret the movie as a statement against self-sacrifice. After all, the tragedy happens because both parties are sacrificing themselves. Jan wants Bess to free herself from him and start living her own life, so he tells her that taking other lovers will help heal his injuries (knowing that this is the only way to convince her); Bess wants Jan to recover, so she takes other lovers despite her strong repugnance to the act. He pressures her into it because he thinks it will be best for her; she bows to his wishes because she thinks it will be best for him. In a sense, the grimness and horror of the story suggest that this self-sacrificial martyrdom isn't such a good idea.
But the miraculous ending goes against this interpretation. After all, Bess was right. Her martyrdom did save Jan's life. It wasn't a misguided attempt to be nice that wound up at cross purposes with someone else's misguided attempt to be nice. In addition, every single sympathetic character, even the ones who were convinced that Bess was insane and delusional and should be committed, laud her goodness at great length after she dies and Jan recovers. And just in case the audience was wondering whether to take Jan's recovery as a mere coincidence, the movie ends with yet another miracle -- Jan and his oil-rig friends bury Bess at sea, and upon her burial, enormous church bells appear, miraculously suspended in the sky and ringing to beat the band. Yes, even God Himself chimes in with unmistakable praise for Bess's noble sacrifice.
Maybe I'm being unfair here. After all, Bess believes that the choice is between her own repugnance, her own safety, her own family and community, and eventually her own life, and the life of Jan. And doing something repugnant or dangerous to save the life of someone you love is a very admirable, not-ridiculous thing to do.
It's entirely possible that I am being unfair. Breaking the Waves is clearly an honest attempt to address sticky and complicated questions of morality and goodness, and I admire that intention a great deal. So few movies pay any attention at all to these ideas beyond a simplistic presentation of good guys vs. bad guys. If the movie had taken any other arena to test Bess's love and willingness to sacrifice herself, I might not have been so peeved. But the notion that sex is a painful duty you should put up with in order to take care of others is, for me, as irritating as a rake on a blackboard. And as compelling and entrancing and heartrending as I found the movie to be, the final impression it left me with was... well, the creeps.
Copyright 1996 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.