Breaking the Waves


Breaking the Waves

Critics Consensus

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.



Total Count: 59


Audience Score

User Ratings: 31,256
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Movie Info

With Breaking The Waves, director Lars von Trier fashions an often disturbing tale of the singular power of love. Bess (the Oscar-nominated Emily Watson) is a naïve, borderline simple young woman who lives in a Scottish coastal town ruled by the religious doctrine of its council of elders. Recovering from a mental breakdown caused by the death of her brother, Bess marries a rough yet compassionate and attentive oil rig worker named Jan (Stellan Skarsgård). For a brief time, the couple enjoys peaceful wedded bliss, with the worldly Jan introducing Bess to the mysteries of sex. Jan must soon return to his job on the rig, however, where he is paralyzed from the neck down in a freak accident. Bess' emotional trauma over Jan's injury turns into obsession as she prays to God for his recovery and offers to do anything to have her husband back whole. Jan, constantly medicated and profoundly depressed, asks Bess to have sex with other men and tell him about it, thinking this will allow her to return to a normal life. Bess, on the other hand, sees it as an expression of her devotion to Jan that even God won't be able to ignore. Bess's resultant downward spiral leads to a finale of both tragedy and spirituality. Breaking the Waves is widely regarded as one of the most distinctive European movies of the 1990s, marking von Trier's movement toward his influential Dogma 95 school of filmmaking, which emphasizes realistic situations of contemporary life, filmed without background music and with a hand-held, restlessly moving camera. ~ Don Kaye, Rovi


Emily Watson
as Bess McNeill
Katrin Cartlidge
as Dodo McNeill
Adrian Rawlins
as Dr. Richardson
Sandra Voe
as Mother
Udo Kier
as The Man on the Trawler
Phil McCall
as Grandfather
Jonathan Hackett
as The Minister
Finlay Welsh
as Coroner
David Gallacher
as Glasgow Doctor
Ray Jeffries
as Man on Bus
Bob Docherty
as Man on Boat
Owen Kavanagh
as Man at Lighthouse
Bob Dogherty
as Man on Boat
David Bateson
as Young Sailor
Callum Cuthbertson
as Radio Operator
Gavin Mitchell
as Police Officer 1
Peter Bensted
as Ugly Man
Brian Smith
as Police Officer 2
Iain Agnew
as Praying Man 1
Charles Kearney
as Praying Man 2
Steven Leach
as Praying Man 3
John Wark
as Boy 2
View All

News & Interviews for Breaking the Waves

Critic Reviews for Breaking the Waves

All Critics (59) | Top Critics (12) | Fresh (50) | Rotten (9)

  • There are few movies around that take such huge risks: this is high-wire filmmaking, without a net of irony.

    Feb 26, 2018 | Full Review…

    David Ansen

    Top Critic
  • The performance from newcomer Emily Watson is the centerpiece of this spiritual journey.

    Mar 26, 2009

    David Stratton

    Top Critic
  • It's a remarkable achievement for all concerned, with Katrin Cartlidge, as Bess's widowed sister-in-law, sharing the acting laurels with the radiant Emily Watson, and writer/director Lars von Trier building the emotional and dramatic intensity ...

    Jun 24, 2006 | Full Review…

    Geoff Andrew

    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • Watson's Bess is an unforgettable character -- simple, profound, heartbreaking, tragic and yet triumphant.

    Jan 1, 2000 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…
  • Emily Watson gives this musty spiritualism a flesh and-blood sympathetic center. Her purity of emotion, be it bliss, fear or sorrow, are convincingly unactorly and the camera -- even Von Trier's handheld pseudo-documentary one -- loves her face.

    Feb 22, 2019 | Rating: B+ | Full Review…
  • Gloomy '90s drama has cursing, nudity, mature themes.

    Apr 18, 2017 | Rating: 2/5 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Breaking the Waves

  • Nov 23, 2018
    It is curious to see how Lars von Trier uses a number of plot elements and devices that could be simply considered too hard to buy and more appropriate in a soap opera, and yet he manages to make everything so touching and genuinely devastating, with a powerful performance by Emily Watson.
    Carlos M Super Reviewer
  • Jun 24, 2014
    Emily Watson delivered an Oscar worthy performance in this disturbing love story between a psychologically troubled yet deeply religious young woman and her husband who was paralyzed in an accident at work. This is the first of von Trier's golden heart trilogy and by far the best. The film was shot in a semi-dogme style, the plot was broke down into chapters, a technique he would later use for his other films. Rod Stewart's songs were played throughout the transitions of the segments. I loved the acting, I thought both Watson and Skarsgard deserved Oscar. The story was beautiful yet huanting, really made me think about what is love. It has a good message and a semi-happy ending, it's truly a masterpiece.
    Sylvester K Super Reviewer
  • Aug 02, 2012
    Definately not what I was expecting from a film about Moses, but hey, Lars von Trier is nothing if not unconventional... or a little messed up in the head. Based on the title, this film really does sound like it could be either a Moses film or an Asian kung-fu film, but either way, both subject matters promise a really, really long film. Man, those Asians sure love their overlong action films, almost as much as Lars von Trier loves overlong, well, anything, with the obvious exception of extended traveling. I don't know what he's so worried about, because, I don't know about you guys, but if Emily Watson ever looks at me, I think that my ability to fear will peak, because she's got some crazy eyes. Okay, maybe they're not that freaky; in fact, in Waton's youth, those eyes were actually pretty pretty, but they're still so bizarrely distant that I pretty much was expecting her to, somewhere along the way in this film, end up in the water and high for some reason, so that her pupils would dilate and she really would break the waves, shark style. Hey, after a while of sitting through this film, you too will be hoping for a dumb shift in events like that, just so that something would happen. Oh well, jokes aside, this film's title is actually pretty amazing, and certainly better than the film itself, which isn't to say that this film isn't enjoyable, because it is ultimately a film reasonably worth sitting through, but boy, do you have to sit for a long while. At just under 160 minutes, the film is certainly a lengthy watch, though as you would probably guess from the fact that this is a Lars von Trier film, that length isn't so much long as it is overlong. Well, sure enough, this film takes its sweet time, of which, it appears to have plenty, as much of the padding in this film is very considerable, with overdrawn scenes of nothingness and immense repetition being found, not here and there, but almost throughout the film, and it really slows down the film's momentum, if it had any to begin with. Lars von Trier isn't really a bad storyteller, though his methods are certainly flawed, especially with this film, as he tells the story very dryly, manipulating the immense looseness of the film to emphasize meditativeness, when really, it only emphasizes von Trier's limpness as a storyteller, thus creating a distance with the story flow, thus creating some sort of emotional distance. Von Trier takes a realist approach with this film, attempting to restrain considerable inspiration and tightness in his storytelling in order to plunge you deeper into this world on a deliberate and human level, when really, the film simply comes off as boring and rather arrogant, partially because the illusion of humanity through non-flashy storytelling is, well, a flawed and pretty pretentious method that can't work if you put minimal effort into storytelling, but also because the film's visual style is distinctly cinematic, seeing as how it's so distinctly amateur. Well, maybe Robby Müller's cinematography isn't so much amateur as much as it's overstylized to the point of being just plain pretty bad, as it attempts to give the film a faithfully cold realist look, only to end up giving the film a profoundly bland lack of color - made more glaring by sometimes too unsteady and messy photography staging - that just looks kind of unattractive and, certainly, expands the emotional distance. The film's storytelling methods are certainly unique, to a certain extent, yet they are also naturally flawed, and unless they're compensated for, they can ruin, if not just plain destroy a film, and sure enough, this film collapses as not simply underwhelming, but just plain boring, and that's death for certain films of this type. However, this film does not collapse to ruin, let alone to total destruction, for although it should be more inspired than it is and with less problematic storytelling methods, it ultimately pulls through the dullness and distancing to stand as a watchable film, messy though, it may be. Even if a film's execution of a strong story isn't as good as it should be, a strong story concept can go a long way, and while this film's story isn't terribly stellar, or even all that terribly original, it's still worthy and fascinating, with complexities and depth that may not go played up all that much by Lars von Trier, as director, but can be noticed enough within the film's concept to earn your attention, and by extension, your investment. Lars von Trier's under-inspired direction really does drag this film down considerably, yet would have dragged it down further were it not for the fact that the story upon which this film lazily focuses isn't tainted terribly by faulty execution, and is worthy enough for you to be hard pressed to not be a little bit interested. Where von Trier's storytelling could have brought this film to a downfall, the worthiness of the story leaves the final product to transcend almost to the point of decent, while what secures the final product's being above mediocre is, of course, the acting. Now, the performances aren't consistently sparkling, yet they are consistently impressive, with the leads having more than a few very high high spots in their engrossing performances. Stellan Skarsgård captures his Jan Nyman characters' initial down-to-earth good-heartedness with smooth, human charm, yet when tragedy strikes and changes Nyman's life forever and for the worse, Skarsgård crushes with an intense presence of anguish and uncertainty as he endures the impossible and ponders upon the unthinkable, thus leaving him to change into a different and more disturbed person, and while such a performance is mainly written to be rather restrained, when Skarsgård delivers, he cuts deep and leaves you fully locked into Nyman as a fully realized and struggling man. As for leading lady Emily Watson, for her debut role, she, on the other hand, is consistently presented material and consistent in not letting that go to waste, as her Bess McNeill is a disturbed but well-intentioned soul suffering from overwhelming fear and tainted by her own overwhelming affections, which she shall put to the test by placing herself through many self-destructive struggles and challenges, and watching Watson portray such a layered and disturbed character with such raw emotional intensity and believability truly is an experience that's both heartbreaking and rewarding. The film is so limp so frequently, to where it could never be bad, but not likely to be good either, yet what keeps this film from collapsing is the worthiness of its story and the engrossing intensity in the performances, particularly that of Emily Watson, whose heart-wrenching portrayal of a disturbed and perhaps - nay - decidedly too committed romantic carries this film and marked the debut of a strong talent who can help in making messy projects such as these to state of being generally worth the watch. Overall, the film is immensely overdrawn, with near-endless redundant and repetitious material dragging the film down, while Lars von Trier's overly steady, limp and even rather arrogant direction, combined with Robby Müller's overstylized and bland cinematography, dulls the film down and distances its emotional resonance, until the final product finds itself crawling along as underwhelming, though not to the point of eventually collapsing as anything less than decent, as a consistent degree of engagement value goes spawned from a worthy story, brought to life by a myriad of inspired performances, with Stellan Skarsgård delivering a mostly restrained but ultimately piercing performance, and a then-newcoming Emily Watson delivering a consistently powerful lead performance that makes for a strong debut and helps greatly in making "Breaking the Waves" (Man, that title is awesome) an ultimately watchable and generally engaging drama, regardless of its being tainted by its own ambitions. 2.5/5 - Fair
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • Mar 01, 2012
    A disturbing yet beautiful film. Von Trier's masterpiece and the best use of a Rod Stewart song in a movie.
    Graham J Super Reviewer

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