Note: I go into extreme detail of the plot of this film, so be wary of spoilers below. If you have yet to see Breaking the Waves I highly recommend it.
Belief is the key word I like to focus on when discussing religion. Like many people I see it as a troubling topic of discussion because it barely ever involves much discussion if people are disputing elements or it as a whole. I feel it’s almost as worthy as discussing the logic gaps in the mythology of Marvel superheroes. Both are fleshed out completely within books and ask the reader for complete belief no matter what is put in front of you. Don’t question why Iron Man’s atomizer allows him to life the world itself, just accept it and believe in the lore laid before you.
With that in mind it’s easy to scratch your head a few times and just know that it’s pointless to debate it, even though people continually try. The middle ground that I find fascinating is people discussing finding themselves in theology. Finding where the morals and of dogmatic law, honestly I’m not even sure if I’m saying that bit right, fall within their own and how and if they can change either themselves or their perception of those laws to suit their own all in the name of conforming or understanding another world. There is however the opposite of that aspect of life, and that’s either complete acceptance or dismissal.
Breaking the Waves isn’t Lars von Trier’s discussion of religion and morals of reality coming up against it but rather his own little middle finger to the conversation entirely. However, it never feels like he’s completely refusing scripture or discussion, but rather refusing those people who refuse to discuss and understand.
I’ve found in my lifetime a lot of curious interpretations of religion and come to my own decision on the topic. However, this came after years of assimilation and after that more years of confrontation. I essentially was that person as I spoke of above, trying to reconcile my morals with that of religions’. I remain open to any and all theological discussions as I feel Lars von Trier is. However, this film feels like coming from someone who’s confrontational years were way too violent and his reconciliation was impossible. It feels as though he wanted to wave his middle finger not at God or any other religious iconography, but at the people who shoved that religion down his throat.
The film follows Bess (Emily Watson) after she marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) and the life that follows. Bess is a woman devoted to the church, while Jan remains unwilling to become a part of this radical following of scripture. Bess is also a seemingly mentally troubled person as she constantly is having conversations with God where she is offering answers to her own questions and continuing to believe that it is the God that is speaking through her. Jan is a worker on the drilling oils just off shore.
The film follows Bess as she consistently is finding solace in either the life that she’s just entered into with Jan or that relationship that she’s had forever with God.
Interestingly enough von Trier doesn’t discredit religion or God but rather the men that preach it. He does through firstly admitting their is a God through Bess. We begin the film certain that any and all scenes of this action are proof of something being wrong with Bess. However, slowly we come to recognize that it’s not Bess that’s wrong but the world. Lars von Trier has given us a protagonist who has a direct line to God. As she says, “I have the power of belief,” which means either he’s putting the men of God under scrutiny or the idea of belief itself. I am more for the former than the later, but then we’d be getting into theories and belief itself would eventually have to be entangled in it all – and wouldn’t we want to leave that out of this one.
What pushes the film into that scrutiny of the system is that of Jan and Bess’ relationship and how it changes. After Jan leaves for stretch of work on an oil rig Bess becomes troubled and lonely, so during one of her chats with the man upstairs she asks for Jan to return immediately, as opposed to a few days from now. Coincidentally Jan has an accident that makes him return home, but the accident does a lot of damage and leaves him mostly paralyzed from the neck down. Bess feels guilty for this happening. Jan feeling that she must move on from him and not waste away her youthful years on a crippled man nearing death, as he looks to be everyday, asks something ludicrious of her that breaks most social norms of our world within not just day to day secular society but within the bounds of religious definitions of marriage. He claims that this will keep him alive. Bess enabled with not just her devotion to God, but her husband and belief in her duties she carries them out. AND IT WORKS!!!!
As the film ends and Bess dies carrying out her duties for her husband he manages to make a miraculous recovery. She’s outcast by society as now becoming a deviant and a sinner in order to save her beloved husband. However, just as the film is about to wrap up and we’re still allowed to theorize of the validity of her beliefs and coincidence we’re treated to one of the most blatantly opinionated forcing moments ever put in film that I can recall. Our characters, currently on an oil rig and in the middle of nowhere, are inexplicably hearing the sounds of church bells. Lars von Trier even lifts us up to the sky to see the bells of what we can only imagine is the heavens ringing down on the world as God himself is supposedly celebrating the life of Bess as the one true believer of these group of ants that reside on this earth judging and condemning.
It’s spectacular. It is not so much an argument as much as it’s a complete dismissal of the religious system as we know it in the eyes of this Danish filmmaker.
In recent years whenever I find myself in religious and moralistic discussions that tend to be about social changes happening in the world today – more times than not it ends up being something about sexuality as we see more and more of the world start to hand out equal rights to other sexual orientations – I tend to listen keenly and respond in a way that I feel is the most correct. That being, “I find my favourite thing about religion as it stands is that it makes it perfectly clear that while it has a set of rules that it asks us to guide our life by it never asks us to judge. It intently knows that the judgement is not that of man’s decision but that of God. And I look forward to hearing his decision on me when the time comes, if that’s what happens.”
Lars von Trier, thank you for this unendingly intriguing perspective on systems that men continue to claim knowledge of when in truth we’re just following blindly.