Dancer in the Dark is set in the Pacific Northwest, but the geography feels like a running joke. The landscapes don’t resemble anything in North America, and the film is so dour and unremitting that it could only be European in origin.
That’s not a criticism, just an example of one of the ways in which Lars von Trier’s feel-bad follow-up to Breaking the Waves is a little crazy. The director casts Icelandic pop icon Björk in the lead role of Selma, a Czech immigrant with a thing for movie musicals. Franco-cinema icon Catherine Deneuve plays her best friend. There are some Americans on hand, as well; David Morse plays a local policeman, and Joel Grey shows up in a cameo (as a European!).
Like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark chronicles the critical events in the life of a woman who is driven to sacrifice herself for someone she holds dear. In the previous film, it was her husband (and her god); in this film, it’s her son, who shares the genetic condition that has driven her to the brink of blindness. Working factory jobs and denying herself life’s simplest material pleasures, she has saved nearly enough for a critical operation that must take place when the boy turns 13. Owing to a turn of events that I won’t describe here, everything goes terribly wrong.
Von Trier shoots the bulk of Dancer in the Dark in the bleak, bleached-out style that has characterized his recent work. I’m always dismayed to see a film shot on video, even the high-quality digital video formats that are very much in vogue these days, because they wind up drawing my attention to the image in a negative way. (I can’t help thinking about how closely the screen resembles television.) The film has been carefully processed and looks pretty good, save for the occasional appearance of aliased scan lines. Call it the new neo-realism. It bears more than a superficial resemblance to documentary footage; one advantage of shooting to video is that the handheld cameras are small and light, and you don’t run out of film so quickly — Von Trier shot much of the film in very long takes (upwards of 25 minutes) to accomodate Björk, who was apparently having trouble moving in and out of character. (For her own part, Björk says she never wants to act again — I keep thinking of Renee Falconetti, who was apparently so rattled by her great portrayal of Joan of Arc for Carl-Theodor Dreyer that she swore off the cinema for the remainder of her career.)
Where Dancer breaks from that Dogme-esque austerity is in its musical numbers, which have Selma keying into the rhythms of everyday life — factory machinery, the chugalug of a locomotive, or the beating of a human heart — and bursting into song and dance. These flights of fancy are Selma’s escape from a real world that becomes ever more suffocating with every twist of the plot, and they’re signaled by the use of a higher grade of video camera. (Truth be told, the images still look pretty drab, but the saturated colors are welcome respite; I expect the DVD will probably look pretty damn sharp.) Specifically, Von Trier places 100 of them in fixed positions and then sets the song-and-dance routine running; the images are later edited from the resulting footage.
It’s an interesting effect — although the sequences are meant as homage to movie musicals, the absence of crane and dolly shots is just another factor differentiating this film from its Hollywood predecessors. Furthermore, the industrial beats aren’t exactly joyous — they lend a sinister undercurrent to the proceedings that reinforces the sense of dread. Despite some honestly terrific music, the overall effect is almost, but not quite, completely joyless. I was reminded of the film version of Pennies From Heaven, with Christopher Walken’s underhanded rendition of “Let’s Misbehave.” Altogether, Dancer in the Dark feels like a cross between a silent melodrama, a low-grade Hollywood musical, and a very bad dream.
The post-Cannes controversy seems to be over whether von Trier is a major artist or a fraud. I doubt that he’ll ever make another movie that sneaks up on me the way Breaking the Waves did, but I found a lot to immerse myself in here. Von Trier is a manipulator? Tell me something I don’t know. The story is contrived? I can only shrug. I’ll freely admit that this director plays me like a song. I suspected a powerfully downbeat ending, spent the better part of the film’s 140-minute running time steeling myself for it, and still just about disintegrated at the climactic moment.
What I’m not sure about is the degree of cynicism in von Trier’s motives. Was Selma born of empathy or condescension? Björk says she and the director clashed over the characterization of Selma; she believed that Selma was a truly intelligent woman who considered her options and made her sacrifices with a sound mind and a clear conscience, while von Trier apparently argued for a portrayal that emphasized her simpleness. (Talk about simple — Björk also made the scandalous claims that Von Trier’s taste in music runs to Roxette, Celine Dion, and Andy Gibb.) The film also includes some not-too-subtle digs at the U.S. and the culture of capital punishment that suggest a high-mindedness the film doesn’t quite earn. (See Kieslowski’s Dekalog for a more straightforward case against the death penalty.)
A director who puts the “von” in his name just because he likes the way Erich von Stroheim and Joseph von Sternberg trip off the tongue has to be, on some level, putting us on. But even if Von Trier really is snickering into his sleeve at the end of the day (and that’s a point I’m not yet willing to concede) he’s earned some level of arrogance. He’s gotten some very affecting naturalistic performances, he’s commissioned a one-of-a-kind score — for my money the best work Björk’s done yet — and he’s made a film that burrows under your skin and makes its home there. For a director who gives me all that, I’m easy.