Breaking the Waves

Bess McNeill is a young and beautiful Scottish woman, who has, in the past, been subjected to unenlightened psychiatric “treatment”. She marries oil rig worker Jan Nyman, a 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 has difficulty living without Jan 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, that God was punishing her for her selfishness in asking for him to neglect his job and come back 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 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 revitalize 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 to be with other men, she perseveres in her own sexual debasement as she believes 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 brutalized in increasingly cruel sexual encounters. The entire village is scandalized by these doings, and Bess is excommunicated. In the face of being cast out from her church, she proclaims, “You cannot love words. You cannot be in love with the Word. You can only love a human being.”

Dodo and Jan’s doctor agree the only way to keep Bess safe from herself is to have her committed, and as far away from her husband as possible. It is then that Bess decides to make what she thinks is the ultimate sacrifice for Jan: she unflinchingly goes out to a derelict ship full of barbarous sailors, who violently gang rape and attack her, causing her death. The church refuses to hold a funeral for her, deeming 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 the sealed coffin. Jan is later 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.