Breaking the Waves
Theatrical release poster
Directed byLars von Trier
Written byLars von Trier
Peter Asmussen
Produced byPeter Aalbæk Jensen
Vibeke Windeløv
StarringEmily Watson
Stellan Skarsgård
Katrin Cartlidge
Jean-Marc Barr
Udo Kier
CinematographyRobby Müller
Edited byAnders Refn
Distributed byWarner and Metronome Films ApS (Denmark)[1][2]
Svenska Filminstitutet[1]
Triangelfilm (Sweden)[2]
Les Films du losange (France)[1]
Norsk Film Distribusjon (Norway)[2]
Senso Films (Finland)[2]
Lucky Red (Italy)[2]
Pandora Film (Germany)[2]
October Films (United States)[2]
Release date
18 May 1996 (Cannes)
Running time
158 minutes[3]
United States[4]
Budget$7.5 million[5]
Box office$23 million[6]

Breaking the Waves is a 1996 psychological drama film directed and co-written by Lars von Trier and starring Emily Watson in her feature film acting debut, and with Stellan Skarsgård, a frequent collaborator with von Trier.

Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, it is about an unusual young woman and the love she has for her husband. The film is divided into seven chapters and an epilogue, separated by audio-visual art by Per Kirkeby and accompanied by music.

The film is an international co-production between the US, Denmark, seven other European countries, and is von Trier's first feature film with his Danish production company Zentropa. As von Trier's first film made after his founding of the Dogme 95 movement, it is heavily influenced by the movement's style and ethos. It is the first film in Trier's Golden Heart trilogy, which includes The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), the former made in compliance with the Dogme 95 Manifesto.[7]

Breaking the Waves was well-received, with Emily Watson's acting receiving critical praise and earning her first Academy Award nomination. The movie has been described as "perhaps von Trier's most widely acclaimed film" and cited as among the best films of the 1990s.[8][9] The film won numerous awards including the Grand Prix at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.


Chapter One: Bess Gets Married
Chapter Two: Life with Jan
Chapter Three: Life Alone
Chapter Four: Jan's Illness
Chapter Five: Doubt
Chapter Six: Faith
Chapter Seven: Bess' Sacrifice
Epilogue: The Funeral

Bess McNeill is a young and pretty Scottish woman who has, in the past, had treatment for unspecified mental health illness after the death of her brother. She marries oil rig worker Jan Nyman, a Danish non-churchgoer, despite disapproval from her community and her Free Scottish Presbyterian Calvinist church. Bess is steadfast and pure of heart but quite simple and childlike in her beliefs. During her frequent visits to the church, she prays to God and carries on conversations with Him in her own voice, believing that He is responding directly through her.

Bess is infatuated with Jan and has difficulty living without him when he is away on the oil platform. Jan makes occasional phone calls to Bess, in which they express their love and sexual desires. Bess grows needy and prays for his immediate return. The next day, Jan is severely injured in an industrial accident and is flown back to the mainland. Bess believes her prayer was the reason the accident occurred and that God was punishing her for her selfishness in asking him to neglect his job and return to her. No longer able to perform sexually and mentally affected by the paralysis, Jan asks Bess to find a lover. Bess is devastated and storms out. Jan then attempts to commit suicide and fails. He falls unconscious and is readmitted to the hospital.

Jan's condition deteriorates. He urges Bess to find another lover and tell him the details, as it will be as if they are together and will revitalise his spirits. Though her sister-in-law Dodo constantly reassures her that nothing she does will affect his recovery, Bess begins to believe these suggestions are the will of God and in accordance with loving Jan wholly. Despite her repulsion and inner turmoil at the thought of being with other men, she perseveres in her own sexual debasement, believing it will save her husband. Bess throws herself at Jan's doctor, but when he rebuffs her, she takes to picking up men off the street and allowing herself to be brutalised in increasingly cruel sexual encounters. In the face of probable expulsion from her church, she proclaims, "You cannot love words. You cannot be in love with a word. You can only love a human being. That's perfection". The entire village is scandalised by these doings, and Bess is excommunicated.

Dodo and Jan's doctor agree the only way to keep Bess safe from herself is to have her committed and move as far away from her husband, whom they believe to be in terminal decline, as possible. Bess decides to make what she thinks is the ultimate sacrifice for Jan: she unflinchingly returns to a derelict ship, where sailors brutally attack her. Dodo and Mrs. McNeill meet severely injured Bess in the hospital for the last time, forgiving her for her actions; Bess dies in Dodo's arms.

Her church deems her soul to be lost and hell-bound. Unbeknownst to the church elders, Jan, and his friends have substituted bags of sand for Bess's body inside her sealed coffin. Without notice to the church elders, Dodo condemns them, saying no one has the right to consign Bess to hell. Later, Jan is shown, substantially restored to health despite the doctors not having thought it possible, burying Bess in the ocean, deep in grief. The film ends in magical realism as Bess's body is nowhere to be seen on the sonar, and church bells ring from on high in the sky.




Breaking the Waves was von Trier's first film after founding the Dogme 95 movement with fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. Nonetheless, the film breaks many of the movement's "rules", including built sets, post-dubbed music and computer graphics.[11] It was shot entirely with handheld Super35mm cameras[12] and is the first of von Trier's Golden Heart trilogy, so named after a children's book called Guldhjerte he had read about a little girl lost in the woods who gives away everything she has to others needier than herself.[13] He wanted to make a naturalistic film that was also a religious film without any miracles. Von Trier claimed that it took him five years to write the film and get financial backing, and he began to lose enthusiasm for it right after filming began. It had a budget of 42 million kroner.[14]

Helena Bonham Carter was von Trier's first choice to play the role of Bess, but she dropped out just before shooting was to start, reportedly due to the large amount of nudity and sexuality required by the role.[15] Several other big-name actresses were considered, but none of them was comfortable with the subject matter. Von Trier was eventually won over by Emily Watson's audition, even though she was a complete unknown in the film industry at the time. She was expelled from the School of Philosophy and Economic Science for having played such an explicit role in the film.[16]


Von Trier initially wanted to film the exterior scenes on the west coast of Jutland, then in Norway, then in Ostende, Belgium, then in Ireland, before finally settling on Scotland.[14] The graveyard was built for the film on the Isle of Skye; the church is in Lochailort, the harbour in Mallaig, and the beach in Morar.[17] Von Trier chose the Isle of Skye because it was popular with 19th century English romantic painters and writers.[14] The interiors were shot at Det Danske Filmstudie in Lyngby, Denmark.


End of film credits:

  1. "All the Way from Memphis" – Mott the Hoople
  2. "Blowin' in the Wind" – Tom Harboe, Jan Harboe & Ulrik Corlin
  3. "Pipe Major Donald MacLean" – Peter Roderick MacLeod
  4. "In a Broken Dream" – Python Lee Jackson, featuring Rod Stewart
  5. "Cross-Eyed Mary" – Jethro Tull
  6. "I Did What I Did for Maria" – Tony Christie
  7. "Virginia Plain" – Roxy Music
  8. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" – Procol Harum
  9. "Hot Love" – T. Rex
  10. "Suzanne" – Leonard Cohen
  11. "Love Lies Bleeding" – Elton John
  12. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" – Elton John
  13. "Whiskey in the Jar" – Thin Lizzy
  14. "Child in Time" – Deep Purple
  15. "Life on Mars" – David Bowie
  16. "Siciliana" (Sonata BWV 1031 / 2nd movement) – Johann Sebastian Bach
  17. "Gay Gordons" – Tom Harboe, Jan Harboe & Ulrik Corlin
  18. "Scotland the Brave" – Tom Harboe, Jan Harboe & Ulrik Corlin
  19. "Barren Rock of Aden" – Tom Harboe, Jan Harboe & Ulrik Corlin
  20. "Happy Landing" – P. Harmann

The original soundtrack album also includes "He's Gonna Step on You Again" – John Kongos.


The film is divided into seven different chapters. Each chapter begins with a different impressionistically filmed panorama title frame featuring early 1970s rock music interludes. Each of these chapters is filmed with a motionless camera, but features movement in the panorama. In the original released film, the epilogue, "The Funeral", features David Bowie's "Life on Mars", which was replaced by Elton John's "Your Song" on early home video releases; the more recent Criterion edition restores the Bowie song. The overall style is heavily influenced by the realist Dogme 95 movement, of which von Trier was a founding member, and its grainy images and hand-held photography give it the superficial aesthetic of a Dogme film. However, the Dogme rules demand the use of real locations, whereas many of the locations in Breaking the Waves were constructed in a studio.[18] In addition, the film is set in the past and contains dubbed music, as well as a brief scene featuring CGI, none of which is permitted by the Dogme rules.

Some saw Breaking the Waves as mainstream cinema. Others saw it as a high budget experimental film due to its elaborate chapter shots and handheld camera in a sketchy raw style that followed the actors closely. Breaking the Waves marked an important change in focus for Lars von Trier. In von Trier's early films, the protagonist is a man, typically a disillusioned idealist whose downfall is furthered by a deceitful, fatal woman. In this film, for the first time the protagonist is a woman, emotional and naive. This motif continues in several of his later films, such as Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Manderlay. Breaking the Waves controversially connects religion with phallocentrism. The film focuses on sexual perversity and female martyrdom, issues that continue in Trier's later work. Some critics see the self-sacrificing submissive heroine as a misogynist cliche.[19]

The film was made using Panavision equipment. The low-res look of the scenes was obtained by transferring the film to video, and then back to film again. According to von Trier, "what we did was take a style and lay it like a filter over the story. It's like decoding a television signal when you pay to see a film. Here we encoded the film, and the audience has to decode it. The raw, documentary style that I imposed on the film, which actually dissolves and contradicts it, means that we can accept the story as it is".[20]


Critical response

Emily Watson received critical acclaim for her performance of Bess McNeil.

The film garnered an 85% approval rating, and an average rating of 8.24/10 on Rotten Tomatoes from 59 reviews. The critical consensus reads, "Breaking the Waves offers a remarkable testament to writer-director Lars von Trier's insight and filmmaking skill -- and announces Emily Watson as a startling talent".[21] It also holds a 79/100 rating on Metacritic based on 28 reviews, citing a "generally favorable" reception.[22] During a show where film personalities listed their top movies of the 1990s, Breaking the Waves was named one of the ten best films of the decade by both critic Roger Ebert and director Martin Scorsese.[23]

In an essay for the Criterion Collection, David Sterritt interpreted it as a film in which "no one is 'bad', everyone is 'good', and when trouble flares anyway, it's because incompatible concepts of 'good' can violently conflict with one another"; he praised the ending as "a magical vision that elevates the final moments to radically metaphysical heights".[24]

Box office

The film grossed over $23 million worldwide including $4.6 million in France; $4 million in the US and Canada;[25] $1.7 million in Italy; and $1.1 million in the UK.[6]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards 24 March 1997 Best Actress Emily Watson Nominated [26]
BAFTA Awards 29 April 1997 Best Actress Nominated [27]
Bodil Awards 1997 Best Danish Film Lars von Trier Won [28]
Best Actress Emily Watson Won
Best Supporting Actress Katrin Cartlidge Won
Boston Society of Film Critics 13 December 1996 Best Actress Emily Watson Nominated [29]
Best Director Lars von Trier Nominated
Best Cinematography Robby Müller Nominated
Cannes Film Festival 20 May 1996 Grand Prix Lars von Trier Won [30]
César Awards 8 February 1997 Best Foreign Film Won [31]
European Film Awards 8 November 1996 Best Film Won [32]
Best Actress Emily Watson Won
FIPRESCI Prize Lars von Trier Won
Golden Globes 19 January 1997 Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [33]
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Emily Watson Nominated
Guldbagge Awards 10 February 1997 Best Foreign Film Lars von Trier Won [34]
Independent Spirit Awards 22 March 1997 Best Foreign Film Nominated [35]
Los Angeles Film Critics Association 14 December 1996 New Generation Award Emily Watson Won [36]
National Society of Film Critics 5 January 1997 Best Film Won [37]
Best Director Lars von Trier Won
Best Actress Emily Watson Won
Best Cinematographer Robby Müller Won
New York Film Critics Circle 5 January 1997 Best Film 3rd Place [38]
Best Director Lars von Trier Won
Best Actress Emily Watson Won
Best Cinematographer Robby Müller Won

Operatic adaptation

Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek premiered their operatic adaptation of the film on 22 September 2016, at Opera Philadelphia.[39] The work was called "the most startling and moving new American opera in memory" by parterre box, with Opera News proclaiming that it "stands among the best twenty-first-century American operas yet produced".[40][41]

Home media

The Criterion Collection initially released the film in the United States in 1997 on LaserDisc in a director's approved 2-disc edition and featured four deleted scenes selected by Lars von Trier, the complete European director's cut, a promo clip prepared by Lars von Trier for the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and the U.S. theatrical trailer.[42] On 27 January 1998, the film was made available on VHS format courtesy of Artisan Entertainment in an edited cut, while a subsequent DVD release was made available from Artisan on 25 July 2000, in a non-anamorphic edition and lacking the special features which appeared on Criterion's LaserDisc edition.[43][44] Criterion again reacquired home distribution rights to the film and released a Dual-Format digipack 1-disc Blu-ray and 2-disc DVD edition on 15 April 2014. The set contains a new 4k transfer and DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, most of the previous restored special features from the original LaserDisc, in addition to new select-scene audio commentary featuring von Trier, editor Anders Refn, and location scout Anthony Dod Mantle, new interview with filmmaker and critic Stig Björkman, new interviews with actors Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, interview from 2004 with actor Adrian Rawlins, excerpts from Watson's audition tape, with commentary by von Trier, deleted scene featuring late actor Katrin Cartlidge and a booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt and an excerpt from the 1999 book "Trier on von Trier".[45]

In the United Kingdom, Breaking the Waves was first released on VHS home video on 28 April 1997,[46] while a second VHS was released in a 'Special Widescreen Edition' on 1 October 1999 via Pathé.[47] Pathé made the film available on DVD format on 1 September 2003, and featured its original aspect ratio in a 16:9 anamorphic screen, with Dolby Digital English 5.1, Italian 2.0 dub and multiple subtitle options. The special features include select commentary from Lars von Trier and Anders Refn interviewed by Anthony Dod Mantle.[48] Curzon Artificial Eye currently occupy distribution rights in the UK and have released the film on DVD and on Blu-ray on 10 November 2014.[49][50]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Breaking the Waves (1996)". Unifrance. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  3. ^ Lasagna, Roberto; Lena, Sandra (12 May 2003). Lars von Trier. Gremese Editore. p. 124. ISBN 978-88-7301-543-7. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
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  5. ^ Goss, Brian Michael (January 2009). Global auteurs: politics in the films of Almodóvar, von Trier, and Winterbottom. Peter Lang. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-4331-0134-2. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
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  8. ^ Winter, Jessica (22 October 2009). "Is Lars von Trier a Misogynist?". Slate. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  9. ^ "The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". 21 December 2022.
  10. ^ a b Hellerman, Josh (1 November 2022). "Breaking the Waves 1996 Screenplay" (PDF). No Film School. Retrieved 1 November 2022.
  11. ^ Breaking the Waves DVD liner notes. The Criterion Collection. 2014. Spine number 705. page 6.
  12. ^ Criterion notes. p. 7.
  13. ^ Criterion notes. p. 10.
  14. ^ a b c Criterion notes. p. 14.
  15. ^ "Lars von Trier: Pornographer?". Bright Lights Film Journal. 31 January 2004. Retrieved 12 September 2015.
  16. ^ Lee, Ann; @_ann_lee (20 March 2023). "'There was cruelty and unpleasantness': Emily Watson on school, stardom and sex scenes in her 50s". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 20 March 2023.
  17. ^ "Breaking the Waves (1996)". Scotland: the Movie Location Guide. Archived from the original on 11 March 2010.
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  19. ^ Lars von Trier: The Early Years, by Associate Professor Peter Schepelern
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  21. ^ "Breaking the Waves (1996)". Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  22. ^ "Breaking the Waves Reviews". Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  23. ^ "Ebert & Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s". Chicago Sun-Times. 26 February 2000. Archived from the original on 29 January 2009.
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  25. ^ "Breaking the Waves – Box Office Data, DVD Sales, Movie News, Cast Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
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  30. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Breaking the Waves". Retrieved 15 September 2009.
  31. ^ "Prix et nominations: César 1979" (in French). AlloCiné. Archived from the original on 13 April 2017. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  32. ^ "Breaking the Waves". European Film Academy. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  33. ^ "Breaking the Waves". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  34. ^ Tasca, Eileen (11 February 1997). "Swedes bestow Gold Bugs". Variety. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  35. ^ Puig, Claudia (10 January 1997). "'Fargo' Is Leader in Spirit Award Nominations". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  36. ^ King, Susan (15 December 1996). "'Secrets & Lies' Takes L.A. Film Critics Awards". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  37. ^ "New Honors for 'Breaking the Waves'". Los Angeles Times. 6 January 1997. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  38. ^ Roman, Monica (12 December 1996). "N.Y. critics go for 'Fargo'". Variety. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  39. ^ "Breaking the Waves". Opera Philadelphia.
  40. ^ Innaurato, Albert (26 September 2016). "New waves".
  41. ^ "OPERA NEWS - Breaking the Waves". 22 September 2016.
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