Breaking the Waves (1996) - Rotten Tomatoes

Breaking the Waves1996

Breaking the Waves (1996)



Critic 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.

Breaking the Waves Photos

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

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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
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News & Interviews for Breaking the Waves

Critic Reviews for Breaking the Waves

All Critics (59) | Top Critics (12)

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

February 26, 2018 | Full Review…
Top Critic

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

March 26, 2009

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 ...

June 24, 2006 | Full Review…

Watson's Bess is an unforgettable character -- simple, profound, heartbreaking, tragic and yet triumphant.

January 1, 2000 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…

Breaking the Waves is emotionally and spiritually challenging, hammering at conventional morality with the belief that God not only sees all, but understands a great deal more than we give Him credit for.

January 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.

February 22, 2019 | Rating: B+ | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Breaking the Waves

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 Magalhães
Carlos Magalhães

Super Reviewer

This was definitely a mesmerizing experience. The film is about so many things but what stood out most to me was the religious subject matter. There's definitely a lot that can be said, little that I agree with, and a lot that could make you feel just depressed/disgusted about the whole thing. The film just punches you in the gut. In conclusion... definitely worth watching.

Wildaly M
Wildaly M

Super Reviewer


Emily Watson is a wonderful actress, her performance is the only thing this ugly thing has going for it. Mean spirited ultimately pointless film. The ending has to be one of the dumbest "ah come on!" moments ever put on film.

jay nixon
jay nixon

Super Reviewer

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