Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

The Vicissitudes of Listening

Music, Empathy, and Escape in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves

Music, Sound, and the Moving Image (2015), 9, (1), 1–32.

Abstract

In Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves (1996), music mediates the audience’s relationship to the events on screen. On the one hand, von Trier encourages viewers to relate their own embodied experience of listening to music to the film’s central character and thereby fosters an empathetic connection between the audience and Bess McNeill. On the other hand, von Trier’s use of music provides moments of escape from Bess’s traumatic story as the film becomes increasingly violent. By pulling viewers between these two states—an embodied identification with Bess and an awareness of one’s own physical responses to music separate from Bess—von Trier’s use of 1970s rock music raises ethical questions regarding a viewer’s relationship to the depiction of another’s suffering. This article aims to bring film scholar Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenological approach to bear on film music, as well as historian Dominick LaCapra’s theories regarding ethics and empathy. In Breaking the Waves, von Trier’s use of music highlights how empathy and escape, pleasure and suffering can become entangled in a morally complex embrace.

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CIZMIC, MARIA