Annette Lassen: Sexual torment in Breaking the Waves
When Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves premiered in 1996, the wretched destiny of the heroine Bess was much debated by film critics. Bess’ selfimposed sexual penance and violent death was, mainly because of her apparent resurrection at the end of the movie, compared with the passion of Christ. This article proposes, instead, to analyse the role of Bess in the light of the sufferings of holy virgins, on the one hand, and two fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” and “The Wild Swans”, on the other. Bess’ plight is compared to the passions of God’s holy virgins (Agatha, Agnes, Barbara and Cecilia), but the tragedy and woefulness of Bess’ death seems in stark contrast to these tales. While traditional fairytales usually teach us that goodness pays, Andersen lets his utterly good little mermaid die instead of marrying the prince. She indeed acquires an eternal soul but her death must, nevertheless, be seen as a tragic end, because of her unfulfilled earthly love. The article argues that Breaking the Waves is in many aspects reminiscent of Andersen’s fairytales, and that von Trier’s special brand of tragedy in this film can be seen as an updated (with respect to romantic ideals) version of Andersen’s fusion of the two generic groups, traditional fairytales and Christian passions.
Keywords: Lars von Trier, H.C. Andersen, Breaking the Waves, passions, film studies