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This film starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard, was co-written and directed by Danish director, Lars von Trier. Other acclaimed works of this director include, "Dancer in the Dark" (2000), and "Europa" (1991). "Breaking The Waves" is a tragic drama with elements of a romantic love story.

The film is set in a windswept Scottish coastal village in the 1970's. Bess (Emily Watson), an innocent local girl, marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oilrig worker. Their marriage is a happy one and the couple is in love, but Jan's return to the oilrig separates them. Without her husband’s presence, Bess becomes lonely and depressed, resulting to her constant praying for his return at any cost. Consequently, a head injury leaves Jan completely paralyzed and is brought back to his wife. However, as a result of his injury, Jan becomes impotent and thus encourages his wife to become intimate with other men in order to fulfill his sexual fantasies. In her effort to please her husband, Bess becomes involved with several men, resulting to her gradual isolation from the rest of the village community. Eventually, Bess dies condemned by the locals, while Jan recovered from his injury but was too late to save his beloved wife.

Bess was brought up in a strict Calvinist Presbyterian community where outsiders were frowned upon and women were expected to be silent and respectful of their husbands. When Bess married Jan, an outsider, the church elders and the rest of the village disapprove of their unity. Bess ignored the criticism and decided to follow her heart and marry Jan. She became dependent on him, and felt the need to constantly fulfil his wishes. Jan was a Scandinavian, oilrig worker that was attracted to Bess' childlike innocence. Following his injury, Jan’s demands and his overpowering influence over Bess, led her into a world of make-belief and eventually to her distraction.

Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), Bess' sister in law was a kind-hearted woman who loved and wished to protect Bess. She was a widow and ironically worked as a nurse in the hospital where Jan was taken following his injury. She constantly advised Bess and refused to believe that Bess was not an intelligent individual. On the other hand, the Church Elders were not sympathetic towards Bess' martyrdom and regarded her actions as both unacceptable and evil. Sticking to their tradition, they condemned Bess to hell.

Due to her strong belief in God, Bess regarded herself as capable of communicating with him through her payers. She often asked God questions in a low voice and answer them back in a high voice supposing responded by God. When Bess was with Jan, she was thankful to God for her happiness and was convinced God would allow her joy to continue. But the time came when Bess and Jan had to separate due to Jan's return to the oilrig. As a result, Bess fell into a deep depression, questioning God's acts. For numerous years, she prayed for love, so she questioned: “why shall God take love away from me now that I found it?". She prayed to God for Jan's return at any cost and her wish came true. She therefore, felt guilty and blamed herself for her husband's misfortune. However, she was deeply grateful to God for letting him live.

Jan was brought at the local hospital where his wife frequently visited him. Jan suggested that she should take a lover without anyone noticing. At first, Bess was embarrassed by her husband's recommendation. However, she soon took upon her minister's advice that her strong belief in God, has bestowed upon her the strength Jan did not possess. Jan knew that Bess would do anything to please him and she would place herself secondary to his needs. Therefore, he tolled her that it is love that kept him alive and that it would greatly please him if she could find another man to make love to and then return back to him and describe the act; "it will feel like you and me being together".

Bess eventually gave into Jan's request in order to show him how much she loved him. Bess believed that her acts would lead to Jan’s recovery and the more frequent her sexual encounters were, the speedier her husband's recovery would be. However, she did not understand that her acts only make things worse and that Jan was simply sick and disillusioned. Bess knew that her sexual encounters were sinful and that her soul would be condemned to hell because of them. However, Jan's recovery was a priority and the only way to save him was through these sexual acts. She strongly believed that her spiritual connection with Jan would allow her to make love to her husband through other men. Bess was convinced that the gift given to her by God was to love Jan, even though it was not physically direct. However, after several encounters with other men, Bess felt that she was losing contact with God. She tried to communicate with him, as before, but God does not answer her requests. The only time Bess succeeded in getting in touch with God again was on her last voyage were she was bitten and raped to death.

Bess lived in an environment where the Church was very influential. The council of Church Elders were strict and stood firm to their beliefs, to the extent that they did not permit women to speak during the Sunday service or attend a funeral. In addition, they believed that God looked with anger upon those who failed him. As a result, the Elders condemned Bess to isolation when they became aware or her sexual behavior. Even Bess' mother (Sandra Voe) did not open the door when her daughter asked for help. At Bess' death, the Elders decided to bury her without a funeral service and at the burial they condemn her to hell. Although they had no right to do that, the Elders were set in their ways, and failed to recognize Bess’ sacrifice and love for her husband.

This film portrays Bess' martyrdom for love and devotion to her husband. Even prior to her death, Bess asked Dodo to see whether Jan was getting better. However, Jan was not and a little before she died, she realized that her actions were wrong. Ironically after her death, Jan recovered only to find that his beloved wife was dead and buried without a funeral. Therefore he secretly stole Bess' body and threw it into the sea under the oilrig. Bess' spirit captured the hearts of the oilrig workers who could hear her through the bells that rung in the sky in the middle of the North Sea.

The dramatic conclusion to this film was that Bess sacrificed herself in an effort to improve the lives of others. Her unparallel love of God and that of her husband made her the victim of the circumstances. Her overwhelming need to please those she loved gave way to logic and reasonable judgment. Bess was also unfortunate to be living in an environment that did not welcome or try to understand anything or anybody out of the 'ordinary'. They failed to see that Bess' acts were not evil, but simple acts of love for her husband. If Bess did not have a strong belief that God could save her husband, then she would not have acted the way she did. The message of this film is that love is often overpowering and makes individuals behave in what others might consider sinful, improper and abnormal.
Breaking the Waves (1996)

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