The real struggle here, then, is not in whether everything will work out well so that everyone can be happy, but in how people will love in the midst of the brokenness and pain of their lives.
Drawing on the great narrative tradition of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, this film paints a picture of a simple-minded female protagonist, Bess, a woman who lives a life of transparent, elemental love. She is not particularly beautiful, intelligent, or sophisticated, but she is exquisitely real. And out of that reality she loves in a way that transcends the broken circumstances of her life and produces, of all things, a miracle.
This is strange, given that von Trier is, if not an atheist, then at least a man severely disillusioned with God. Yet there is such beautiful hope here, and an affirmation of faith that I can guarantee will jerk tears from the eyes of any man or woman willing to see love as the very essence of what God is.
I am giving nothing away by telling you that the movie centers around the conflict Bess experiences when her husband, Jan, is horribly injured and paralyzed in an accident and she comes to believe that the way to save his life is to prove to God her love of her husband by giving in to Jan’s pain-addled plea for her to go out and take a lover and then come back and report on the experience to him.
Sexuality plays as important a role in this movie as it does in real life, and while it is not glorified or voyeurized as a “thing in itself” outside of a loving, married and committed context, the movie is endlessly frank. In so doing, it challenges our conceptions of what love really is, and what it really means to love God.
Breaking the Waves asks gigantic questions, but the biggest perhaps of all is that it forces you, the viewer, to stop, and ask yourself what you really think God is like. Will you judge Bess for what she does? Will you ignore the love that motivates her and take account, solely, of the actions to which it drives her? Are you, in fact, that kind of monster?