Breaking the Waves is Danish writer and director Lars von Trier's first English language film. It is set during the 1970s in a small town in northern Scotland. Jan, a gregarious oil-rig worker, marries Bess, a childlike woman who lives with her mother, grandfather, and widowed sister-in-law. They are members of a strict Calvinist church which hates all things worldly and puts fear into the hearts of its members.
Bess loves God and, in her own special way, has regular chats with him. But once she is introduced to the transports of sexual love in marriage, there is a whole new force field in her life. Utterly bereft when Jan has to go back to his job at sea, Bess asks God to bring him home. When Jan is then paralyzed in an accident, Bess concludes her prayer has brought about his tragic return. Willing to do anything to restore Jan to his former vigor, Bess embarks on a bizarre and dangerous spiritual project which she believes will result in her husband's healing.
Breaking the Waves comes across as a glorious paean to the mighty power of love. It provides a profound meditation on a line from "Les Miserables: "To love another person is to see the face of God." Bess believes that she is showing her love of God when she loves her husband, even to the point of making an extreme sacrifice. Emily Watson gives a soulful performance as this ardent disciple of love. Stellan Skarsgard is just right as Jan, a worldly-wise man who delights in his wife's large reserves of wonder, enthusiasm, and devotion.
Lars von Trier has made an extraordinary film that rivals The Piano with its visual creativity, stunning performances, and dramatic intensity. In addition to its poignant message about sacrificial love, Breaking the Waves reveals the stark contrast between the repression of some types of communal religion and the buoyancy of individual spirituality.