When you first see Emily Watson smiling that I-know-something-you-don’t child’s smile, you know that the least you can expect from “Breaking the Waves” is a good performance by its lead actress. But don’t expect it to be the feel-good movie of the year. You’re very likely to need tissues to stomach this beautiful film about belief in God, in love and the power each one of us possesses.
Emily Watson, who was nominated for an Oscar for this movie, plays Bess McNeill, a deeply religious girl living in a rural community in Scotland. Bess is soon to marry Jan, an “outsider,” played with an incredibly precise amount of both love and strength by Stellan Skarsgård. When Jan needs to go back to his work at an oil rig and his new wife breaks down in tears, his embraces are gentle yet mucho at the same time. He’s one of those men who drinks beer and smokes with his buddies, yet shows an almost unbelievable softness when it comes to his wife. Jan will never fall at Bess’ feet or beg her, but he’ll never let her cry alone, no matter how silly the reason.
Bess is beautiful in her innocence but frightening in her virtue. She talks to God in a meek voice and believes that he answers back in a deeper tone. She worships her husband and the love they share, falling asleep in a phone booth while waiting for his call. When Bess begs God to send Jan home, he arrives the next day … paralyzed from an accident at the oil rig. If love, hope and faith are the driving forces of this movie, then guilt must be its engine. Unable to shake the feeling that she caused her husband’s disability, Bess submits to prayer, trying to take back what she said. Jan is overridden with his own guilt for being crippled, and as he tries to set Bess free, he unleashes a force so destructive, it will almost make you wish that this movie had a Hollywood-like “sugary” ending.
When Jan commands Bess to take lovers, his intentions can be perceived as a voyeuristic perversion, but the complexity and integrity of his character should prevent a viewer from making such a mistake. He’s giving Bess a piece of “freedom,” failing to realize that for his wife, the physical act of sex is not only meaningless, but rather overwhelmingly painful without love. Believing she can save her husband, Bess, a modern day martyr, cries the first time she sleeps with a man she finds at a bar. Her transformation from a shy modest girl whose eyes widen the first time her husband enters her into a woman with red lipstick and provocative clothes is more than appalling, it’s practically implausible. But even more disturbing than her acts are her eyes and her smile, still innocent no matter how many times other men ravage her. When Bess tells a doctor that her talent in life is to believe, it’s the defining moment for her character. With terrifying and incomprehensible intensity, Bess believes in her power to blend God and love, and be a messenger of both.
“Breaking the Waves” is meticulous in its details, yet when the movie is over, there are tens of questions left unanswered. It’s that rare movie that lets you draw your own conclusions at the end. Why was Bess’ mental sickness, for which she was previously hospitalized, left unexplored? Did the sacrifice she make help her husband? And more importantly, are there coincidences or does everything have a cause? “Breaking the Waves” is not a movie you’ll easily forget. It’s a film that gets under your skin and stays there. Definitely the most poignant, heart-ripping movie I’ve seen so far.