Breaking the Waves is a 1996 film directed by Lars von Trier and starring Emily Watson. Set in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, it tells the story of an unusual young woman, Bess McNeill, and of the love she has for Jan, her husband. The film is an international co-production led by Lars von Trier's Danish company Zentropa.
Breaking the Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill, who has psychological problems, marries Norwegian oil rig worker Jan, despite the apprehensions of her community and Calvinist church. Bess is somewhat simple and childlike, and has difficulty living without Jan when he is away on the oil platform, where he is scheduled to work for ten days. She prays for his immediate return, and when he returns the next day paralyzed by an industrial accident, she believes it is her fault. No longer able to perform sexually, and mentally affected by the accident, Jan urges her to find and have sex with other men and then tell him the details. Bess slowly begins to believe that what she is doing is the will of God.
The film is influenced by the realist Dogme 95 movement, of which von Trier was a founding member, and its grainy images and hand-held photography give it the superficial look of a Dogme film. However, the Dogme rules demand the use of real locations, whereas many of the locations in Breaking the Waves were constructed in a studio. In addition, the film is set in the past and contains dubbed music, as well as a brief scene featuring CGI, none of which is permitted by the Dogme rules.
Breaking the Waves was named one of the ten best films of the decade by both Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese during a show where the famous film personalities listed their top movies of the 1990s.
Breaking the Waves won the Grand Prix at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, and three awards at the 1996 European Film Awards including: Film of the Year, International Film Journalists Award, and European Actress of the Year (Watson). Emily Watson was nominated for the 1996 Academy Award for Best Actress, the 1997 British Academy of Film and Television Arts award, the National Society of Film Critics prize, and the European Film Award for Best Actress.