I. (Minor Spoilers)
The opening chapters of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves introduce the viewer to Bess and her little, pastoral Scottish community, which is pervaded and dominated by a highly austere Calvinist Christianity. In the very first scene, which features the elders of the church questioning Bess about her betrothed, Jan, a stranger to the community, the atmosphere is immediately stifling and rigorous.
Disparaging and doubting anything that is not familiar to their moralizing mentality, one elder asks of her, ‘Can you think of anything of real value that the outsiders have brought with them?’ She responds by stating simply, ‘their music’, which prompts her swift dismissal. According to the church, nothing of a free, energized, and jubilant nature is conducive to holiness and obedience to God, therefore the music and the other ‘irreverent’ qualities of the outsiders are of no value. When one of them asks the elders to ring the bells after the nuptials, he simply points out that ‘our church has no bells’, something which becomes highly significant at the end of the film.
There is, then, even from the most initial stages of the film, a strong dichotomy between the oppressive dominion of the church, the stewards of the communal worldview, and Bess and the outsiders, who naturally exhibit all the vigour and recklessness of youth. In one iconic scene, one of Jan’s friends drains a can of beer in a single drink before crushing the can in his hand. The elder sitting beside him responds by filling his glass with juice then doing the same, crushing the glass into his hand without showing any sign of pain. The heavy indulgence of the outsider is met by the extreme rigidity of the puritanical clergyman, whose unswerving ideals outweigh the facts of the reality in which he exists.
A more profound example is substantiated by Bess’s deflowering. Beckoning Jan into the washroom, she surprises him by removing her underwear beneath her wedding dress, and asking him to take her then and there. Jan questions her to see if that is what she really wants, considering the very unromantic setting, but she insists on it until he complies. This exemplifies Bess’s defiance of social expectations, her impulsive will to do what she wants, not what is expected of her; the conformity of her community has failed to drag her into its orbit. The intensely sexual element of her and Jan’s relationship is further illustrated through an elongated series of scenes where they are shown copulating; even when Jan goes away the conversation they have via telephone quickly turns sexual. Jan says of Bess later that ‘she blossomed’ when she married, coming into full fruition of who she really is: a powerfully passionate, sensuous, whole-hearted lover, a woman alive at the zenith of sexual experience yet also maintaining a paradoxical state of perpetual innocence.
This pseudo-nymphomania, this extreme preoccupation with her somatic functions largely derives from her ‘mild retardation’, the idea that she is ‘not right in the head’ (it is later revealed that she went to a mental institute). Bess is entirely lacking in the rationality of her church, her family, of her whole town, which causes them to call her ‘feeble-minded’, ‘weak’, ‘stupid’. Instead of waiting patiently for Jan to return from the oil rig where he works for weeks, months at a time, Bess loses control, and, driven by her wildly emotive and irrational love, she screams, wails, runs away, creates a calendar which she uses daily to anticipate Jan’s return. Everyone tells her that ‘you love Jan too much’, which is true in the minds of the bourgeois, who see any interruption to routine and organization as catastrophic, but is absolutely irrelevant to the union between Jan and Bess themselves, who are of course strengthened by her ‘insane’, perfectly devoted love.
We can easily observe the polarity that von Trier is picturing. The darkly Apollonian structure of the community, the conventionality of the outside world, is opposed by the radically Dionysian freedom of the inner world. Bess was once a self-contained, insulated individual, with nothing to fill her time but cleaning the church, and nothing to fill her spirit but what she got in friendship with her sister-in-law; now, however, her love for Jan allows Bess to express what was always inside of her, namely an immense capacity for togetherness, for throwing oneself at another’s feet in complete selflessness. What the outer world tried to bind and conform to its own myopic perspective of how things should be, the inner world unlooses and unleashes; where her ‘foolishness’ and absence of mind is a failing and a weakness in the Apollonian order it is a creative and supremely joyous strength in the reckoning of Dionysus.
This heightened amour does, however, lead to some fierce inner dialogue. Bess talks to herself when she is alone, or rather she talks to ‘God’, who is in reality some internal daemon representing her unconscious, primal self; in talking to ‘God’ she is actually talking to the superb, supra-rational Intellect, the king of the inner kingdom. She prays to her god to send Jan back, that she can wait no longer, and her god, after asking if Bess is certain that that is what she wants, assents. This is of course followed by Jan’s injury, which damages his brain and promises to permanently paralyze him. Bess wails to her god, bemoaning the tragedy, asking why it happened — to which the god responds that she asked for it to happen, that her impatience and her selfishness resulted in Jan’s paralysis. Her love ended up being selfish after all, and god punished both Jan and her for it — now the salvation of their marriage and their very lives depend on how she would atone for it.
In the aftermath of Bess and Jan’s wedding, the halcyon days of their existence, Jan is shown to be glorying in his wife’s blossoming, his greatest joy consisting of his giving joy to her; when they are watching a film together, Jan watches her instead, delighting in her delight in the film. In the aftermath of his accident, however, this innocuous voyeuristic pleasure is converted into something dark and malicious. Knowing that he is almost certainly going to be physically useless for the rest of his life, Jan wants Bess to find someone else, to enjoy someone else as she enjoyed him. While this was initially done out of good intentions, it quickly turns into something else, perhaps because his mind is being altered by all of the drugs his surgeries and general condition necessitate (that is the rational opinion of the doctor, at least). He starts telling Jan to make love to anyone, that it will be as though she is making love with him instead of the person she is with; he says that it will save him: ‘If I forget what love is, I will die.’
This inseminates in Bess’s god-daemon, her unconscious self, a profound idea of self-sacrifice: she will usurp the morality of her social sphere in a triumphant erotic performance founded on an irrational and emphatically mystical principle. She clearly does not enjoy it; she cries, vomits, cowers away from the men, but she does it anyway, because she is doing it not for herself, but for Jan as the atonement for her earlier selfishness. She naturally earns the utter disapproval of the church, the family, and Dr. Richardson, who looks after both Jan and Bess, but she persists in her activity, confident in its legitimacy as a salving tool for Jan’s recovery. Her sweet, childlike nature is somehow preserved even as she does these disgusting deeds, effecting a sad, frightening juxtaposition between innocence and experience. We might even be tempted to glean from this an allegory for many women in our own day who, though they are not prostitutes by nature or vocation, act like them anyway, destroying their essential identity by adopting something foreign to it.
The sometimes strained though ever intimate relationship between Bess and her sister-in-law, Dodo, is highly anticipatory of the relationship between Justine and Claire of Melancholia. Bess obviously reflects the same socially aloof, dissatisfied nature of Justine, and acts according to how her own will bids her act rather than any outside motivation. Dodo reminds the viewer of Claire in how she takes care of Bess, ensuring that she make the most of her place in society, and in her orderly, rational discipline, the way she carries herself; she represents the ‘voice of reason’ character that is an almost invariable feature in any LvT film, the character who contrasts with the main heroine (who is likewise invariably irrational or ignorant in some way) to comprise the director’s own paradigm of the Apollo / Dionysus divide. By setting up a strong background character who epitomizes the very things which the heroine is not, the unique qualities of both characters are highlighted, maximized, and defined with absolute accuracy to express the fundamental message of the film.
Dodo works as a nurse where Jan is hospitalized, and assumes all of the stereotypical traits of a person of science: empirical, agnostic, totally convinced in the authority of science, which makes her antithetical to any form of ‘superstition’ whatsoever. While she goes to church, it is more likely that she does it out of conformity to the society in which she lives, and out of respect to her deceased husband’s family with whom she stays, than any real faith; Bess has to insist to get Dodo to pray for Jan with her, which to the ‘level-headed’ nurse seems ridiculous and futile. So when Dodo learns of how Bess is behaving in her efforts to save her husband, which consist of whoring herself out to strangers, she is scandalized and revolted with both Bess and Jan, who, devolving into sick fantasies in what appears to be his deathbed, seemingly exploits Bess’s ‘feebleness’ to that end. There is a premonition of this earlier in the film, shortly after the wedding, when Dodo tells Jan, ‘You can get her to do anything you wanted.’ When Dr. Richardson moves to institutionalize Bess again, which would remove her from Jan altogether, Dodo looks grieved by it, but does not object, seeing in this fate the sad inevitability of her sister’s weakness. After all, when her husband died, Dodo did not collapse like Bess, but endured, moving on in what she considers to be her own strength. Bess does not believe this to be strength, but rather a different sort of weakness: ‘You had a husband, too, once. Your love could have saved him, if only you’d tried!’
II. (Major spoilers)
When Jan soberly learns what he has been doing, what he has been making Bess do, he wants to quit the surgeries and forego all hope of improvement; realizing that he has become the opposite of what he was before his injury, Jan wants to die. When he was healthy, Jan enjoyed watching Bess in the full freedom of her innocence, when she played in all the liveliness of femininity and youthful virtue. When he was unhealthy, Jan derived a deranged enjoyment from compelling Bess to copulate with other men, when she descended into the constricting world of human lust and power. His spiritual health was inextricably tied up with his physical health; once he lost his body, he lost his noble spirit. In his own act of atonement, knowing all too well the same guilt that Bess experienced after praying for his return at all costs, Jan signs the paper that would send Bess away to the mental hospital, perfectly aware that he would likely never see her again.
What Jan asked of Bess, however, while it did force her into an alien universe constituted by moral and personal excrement, it also offered in a more meaningful way the path to her redemption. This was possible because it was not to anyone else that Bess owed atonement, only to Jan and most of all herself; all that mattered to her was solving her existential crisis and repairing the wound she has caused Jan. By sleeping with men, she believes, the union between Jan and her is vicariously renewed, he will never forget love, and therefore he will never die. After Bess says that ‘God gives everyone a talent’, Dr. Richardson, striving to mend Bess’s course of action through rational means, exasperatingly asks of her, ‘What’s your talent, then?’ Bess replies, ‘I can believe.’ She believes. It is her love, her heart, her naïveté, her belief that will save Jan and her; it is her belief that is her strength. Bess’s faith is stronger than anyone else’s because it is not dictated by law or reason, but by love and a moral courage to do immoral things for that love. Bess’s morality is genuine because it proceeds from an inner knowledge and conviction rather than something forced from outside: ‘Jan and me, we have a spiritual contact.’
Escaping from the custody of the men who were taking her to the mental institute, Bess returns to her town, but, now that her whoring is public knowledge, she is excluded from everywhere she was once welcomed and loved: the young boys and girls she formerly played with now chase her throwing stones and yelling ‘who’s a tart!’, her mother refuses to open the door as Bess is pleading to come inside, and she is repelled by the pastor of the church, who already expelled her from the ‘kirk’ before she was sent away by Jan. Having pushed beyond the ‘illusions’ of the Apollonian domain, Bess, having indulged to excess in the fruits of Dionysus, is cast out from it: ‘Be gone, Bess McNeill, from the House of God.’
In her final, ultimate sacrificial act, Bess returns to a place where she was beaten and nearly raped earlier in the film, knowing now that only by overcoming her former fear and possibly death would be able to save her and her husband. Though her god did not respond the previous time Bess tried to talk with him, he is with her now, comforting her on her last mission, giving her the necessary strength for the task at hand. Simultaneously, though at Bess’s bidding, Dodo is praying on her own, praying for the miracle that would be Jan’s full recovery, ‘that he rises from his bed and walks’ — like Lazarus. We are then shown Bess being wheeled through the hospital, cut and bruised and broken, but she immediately asks to see Jan. After Dodo tells her that he is not any better, Bess says amiably, ‘ Oh, I thought he might be better now. Maybe I was wrong after all.’ Bess dies shortly after.
Before she passes, however, her mother arrives, and tells her that her grandfather is ‘sorry that he couldn’t come.’ Bess tells her mother to tell her grandfather that she loves him, exemplifying Bess’s fundamentally good nature, in spite of their rejecting her. When Bess dies, Dodo loses control, unable to rationalize what has happened, and wails much like Bess wailed earlier in the film; her own precious stability and ‘strength’ is undermined by the tragedy of her best friend’s death. The illusion of the Apollonian facade has gone from her, too, and she plunges into the depths of the real.
At the hearing following her death, the court asks Dr. Richardson to clarify on his statement, that Bess was ‘an immature, unstable person, a person who, due to the trauma of her husband’s illness, gave way in obsessive fashion to an exaggerated, perverse form of sexuality’. Dr Richardson initially wishes to alter his statement, saying that perhaps Bess did not truly suffer from such a clinical diagnosis, that she suffered instead from being ‘good’: ‘If you were to ask me to again to write a conclusion, then instead of writing “neurotic” or “psychotic”, then I might just use a word like . . . “good”‘. The great strength of Bess, her serene, ineffable, and victorious goodness, was what made her weak in the world. They repeatedly called her feeble and stupid, but she was strong: ‘she is stronger than you and me’, Jan says to Dodo in an early scene. After being pressured by the judge, however, who heavily implied that his statement would deeply scar his medical reputation, Dr. Richardson recants his statement again, bowing before the professional, clinical diagnosis. Having scratched the surface of the real, the doctor could not surrender his place in the world, so he was dragged back to the illusory surface plane of the Apollonian.
This is of course echoed in the religious sphere as well. At one point in the film, just before being cast out, Bess wanders into the church she loved, dressed in the attire of a prostitute. As she was walking inside, we hear the elders saying: ‘There is only one thing for us, sinners that we are, to achieve perfection in the eyes of God: through unconditional love for the word that was written; through unconditional love for the law.’ Bess staggers inside, and speaks her bemusement: ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying. How can you love a word? You cannot be in love with a word. You can love another human being. That’s perfection.’ The artifice of the exterior world is utterly rejected by Bess, who has passed into something far more impingent on her sense of self. The elders speak of love in cold, structural terms, which is completely incomprehensible to Bess, who knows love as a radiant warmth and visceral immediacy through her feeling for Jan, for her god, for her family, and the rest of the town. The Dionysian proximity to the really real is an integral part of Bess’s being, which makes her own nature incomprehensible to most of the world around her; they see weakness and stupidity where there is really strength and a sublime, suprarational intelligence.
This intelligence is of course manifested most clearly in the figure of Bess’s god, who again represents her unconscious, her truest self, an entity that exists more deeply in the psyche than most people are willing or able to discover. Caring not for the machinations of morality or the rationale of reasonable men, this god represents the divine knowledge of the Intellect, and it cares only for the sanctity of the Self, for the ultimate truth between men: ‘I care not whether a man is Good or Evil; all that I care / Is whether he is a Wise man or a Fool. Go! put off Holiness, / And put on Intellect’ (William Blake, Jerusalem). The truths of morality, of real morality, are contingent on wisdom; their foundations are found not in absolute law, but in the intellectual capacity to perceive the vastness of context, the wide range of different human situations that require a gentler, more forgiving touchstone: ‘Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgement’ (John 7:24). The love of Bess, the pure tenderness of her heart, her utter selflessness in her sacrifices to Jan, exonerate her in the eyes of all righteous judges. At her ‘burial’ (Bess’s body was stolen from the casket), as the elders were practising the rites that would send her to Hell, Dodo says to them: ‘Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to Hell’. We are of course again reminded of the words of Christ: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’ (John 8:7). The absence of her body again signifies that the church, the entire Apollonian order, no longer has any jurisdiction over her; they really cannot send her to Hell.
That Bess solved her own existential crisis and destroyed her guilt is made all the more obvious when the viewer sees that Jan ‘rises from his bed and walks’. The ‘rational reason’ for this is never provided in the narrative, because it is irrelevant. Dr Richardson said, in his medical, professional opinion, that it would be a miracle for Dodo’s prayer to come true, and that is what happened. Whether through Bess’s sacrifice or through Dodo’s beseeching help from God, it is heavily insinuated that the cause of Jan’s recovery is mystical by nature. The wisdom of the self is selflessness — the abrogation of the ego in service to the Other. We remind the reader of Nietzsche’s words: ‘As [Dionysian] power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self.’ By surrendering one’s own nature, by kneeling on the floor to a God she only half-believes in, Bess and Dodo pioneer a path that reveals the light of the inner realm, the light that would lead to Jan’s resurrection — like Lazarus. The archetype of the Christ cannot be ignored, for he is whom all acts of authentic self-sacrifice refer back to. Christ died that the sinner might live; Bess died that her lover might live.
Jan and his friends succeed in stealing Bess’s body from the elders, and sneak it away to the rig where they are working. They let her go into the dark sea at night. In the morning, however, Jan’s friend wakes him up, saying, ‘You’re not going to believe it’, and shows him the radar, which reveals nothing in the area. When they go onto the deck, though, everyone hears the ringing of bells, which hang up in the air entirely unsupported by any material construct. The church did not have any bells to ring when Jan and Bess were first married, which suggests that it did not have the legitimate authority to marry them; now, however, now that their love has proved to be as true as truth can be, the bells ring loudly and beautifully, sanctifying their marriage. The unconscious, ‘unindividuated’ form of ‘higher unity’ that Nietzsche proclaimed belongs to the Dionysian at the height of his power is now possessed by Bess and her Jan: their union transcended all the bounds, of moral and biological law, of ecclesial and political constrictions, and now of life and death. They are together, one flesh, one soul. The idealistic mysticism of Bess’s belief has trumped physics and all the most rational laws of the world. The music of Dionysus has conquered space and time; freed from the superficial logic of the Apollonian, seeing through its dark facade, Dionysian wisdom ascends through the sky and rings the bells that announce his great victory. Jan’s friend had said that he would not believe it, the bells ringing in the air, but if he learned anything from the belief of Bess, Jan would have the power to believe anything at all.