I admire the way that Lars Von Trier provokes an emotional reaction in the audience and makes the audience feel in this movie. He makes his point by showing us rather than telling us. I enjoyed this film although it is a difficult film to watch because it ends in the death of the protagonist. Lars Von Trier mentioned that he chose the muted visual style that the film was shot in to avoid the film being too intense because it is already dark subject matter. Another aspect is that Lars Von Trier has been criticized for being anti-feminist because many of his films involve women protagonist’s slow destruction. I won’t comment on that. I’ll leave that open to interpretation.
Breaking the waves follows Bess, a Scottish girlish woman from a joyless religious fundamentalist sect, who meets and marries Jan, a man outside of her sect. Bess is a bit “emotionally fragile.” She is mentioned to have had psychiatric treatment before for depression following the death of her brother. After they have been married in the film Jan tells Bess that he doesn’t know how she possibly managed to not have sex up until that point. Bess tells him emotionally she “saved herself” as a virgin for him. It seems that this is a point that Trier wants us to look back on and flinch.
Later on in the film Jan becomes paralyzed in an oil rig accident. He is unable to have sex with his wife and so asks her to sleep with other men and tell him about it. Not knowing this request, her religious family and friends pressure her that she is not doing enough to help her sick husband and to put her own needs aside in order to focus on him and not add to his stress. This is the beginning of Bess’s unravelling. Bess does as Jan asks her and begins having risky sex with random men and recounting the details to Jan. Of course when her religious community members and family find out what she is doing they do not approve though for more religious reasons rather than care for her well-being.
The central aspect of this film that struck me was the fact that the protagonist, Bess, believes that her sexuality does not belong to her. She sees herself as a sexual object with her sexuality as existing for not her own but someone else’s benefit. She believes that her sexuality belongs to and is for her husband. She saved her sexuality believing that it was for her future husband before marriage and after marriage she continues to see her sexuality as existing for her husband’s benefit rather that her own benefit. It’s painful to watch her relate to herself as a sexual object. She “saves” herself and her sexuality as a virgin before marriage for her husband. She feels that her sexuality is the property of her husband and sees herself as a sexual object with her sexuality as something for her husband (rather than her) to feel, take pleasure in and act upon.
Von Trier draws this idea to an extreme and harrowing conclusion in the movie. He makes viewers feel something about these ideas. He makes viewers work mentally to see where things go wrong and what the cause of this tragedy is. I think that he wants viewers to reflect not just on the characters in the film, and what goes wrong in the film, but also inspire viewers to self-reflection on their own and larger society’s attitudes towards women’s sexuality.
I was struck by the fact that Bess essentially never had any of her own boundaries around her sexuality and seems thoroughly disconnected from her sexuality and feelings about sex. Before marriage she didn’t have sex because the church told her not to. After marriage in a heartbreaking manner, she somewhat blindly follows Jan’s instructions to her to sleep with other men. She is unable to set a boundary and refuse Jan’s request that have sex with other men because she doesn’t feel that she has a right to feelings about her sexuality. Her sexuality is never her own and she is never able to say either “yes” to sex or “no” to sex essentially. What primarily underlines Bess’s insanity to viewers is painfully watching her having risky sex with so many strange men. We are watching a person essentially self injure and of course the questions we all ask are, “Why is she voluntarily hurting herself?” and “Why would anyone not see the insanity in hurting themselves this way?” However Bess is unable to be in touch with her feelings about sex, and act on what feels good to her and what doesn’t feel good to her at any point during the movie. Bess’s disconnection from her sexuality and lack of ownership of it doesn’t seem a problem before marriage, and perhaps not even after marriage, but when Jan makes his strange request of her we suddenly see the a big problem with Bess not having ownership of her sexuality. Suddenly what Bess is doing, considering her sexuality as something that is not for her benefit, seems very immoral and challenging to our values.
Watching this film I felt as if Von Trier had been slowly constructing a mathematical proof by contradiction to prove that our first assumption is flawed. It is as if at this point he presents the contradiction. This is clearly shockingly immoral and wrong. This isn’t morality. Other reviewers have said that this film is about female martyrdom and self-sacrifice. Bess’s problem is that she follows the rules of being a sexual object perfectly. Near the end of the movie, the psychiatrist who treated Bess is asked to describe her. He describes her as, “Good.”