Dancer in the Dark (review)

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Stumbling in the Dark

My previous experience with Lars von Trier’s films consists of this:

I was staying at a B&B in Ireland, at the end of a long, fun vacation, ready to head home the next day. Strung out from traveling, probably a bit drunk (this was Ireland, after all), my travel buddy and I couldn’t sleep, so we turned the TV on. You never know what kind of weirdness you’re gonna find on European TV late at night, and we stumbled upon, well, something just starting on Britain’s Channel 4 (known for its wackiness, at least in comparison to the staid BBC). We had no idea what these stark, stylish, black-and-white visuals — set on a swank train during the 1940s — were in aid of. For the first few minutes, I was convinced it was a commercial, one that would end with someone holding aloft a cup of General Foods’ International Coffee. When that failed to happen, we began to figure it for a short film, and it was so oddly compelling — Nazis in sharp uniforms, a sort of cute Euro guy playing a conductor on the train, and murder, blood splashing bright red in a B&W world — that we had to keep watching. As the film’s running time dragged on, it became obvious that this was a feature-length film, and that, though the story lagged, we were going to have to keep watching, just to find out what the hell this now-annoyingly stylish film set in a sort of alternate reality was called — there had been absolutely no opening credits of any kind.
That film, we later discovered, was Zentropa, von Trier’s first feature, and I offer this story because von Trier’s latest film, Dancer in the Dark, made me feel exactly the same way: When I wasn’t stupendously annoyed, I was highly intrigued. I couldn’t turn away from it, but not always for the best of reasons — sitting through this too-long film is often like driving slow past a car wreck in the chance you might see a headless body or something else gross.

Icelandic pop star Björk is Selma, a Czech immigrant to Washington State in 1964, and how you feel about Björk will dictate how you feel about Dancer in the Dark, for this is entirely her film. It’s easy to understand why her friends were worried for her while she was shooting this — she attacks Selma with an intensity that most trained actors never achieve, embodying the almost pathologically fragile and reactive character to such a degree that you can nearly forget how illogically written a character she is.

Employed as a tool operator in a factory making steel sinks and doing extra work carding hairpins on the side, Selma hoards what little money she earns for reasons she keeps to herself. She lives with her 12-year-old son, Gene (Vladan Kostic), in a trailer she rents from local cop Bill (David Morse: The Green Mile, Contact) and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour: American Psycho, You’ve Got Mail). What little pleasure she has in life comes from movie musicals, which she attends with her friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), and she has just taken on the improbable but happy task of playing Maria in a local production of The Sound of Music. She is being wooed by Jeff (Peter Stormare: 8MM, Armageddon, who does what he can with a dreadfully underwritten character), whom she keeps putting off. She is slowly losing her eyesight.

In almost fairy-tale fashion, Selma’s life is turned upside down by a dispute with Bill, from which she seems to think she has no escape and no recourse for the wrong done her. It is obvious to the audience, though, that a word here or there to the right person, were Selma not so exasperatingly passive, might have extricated her from the disaster that follows. Selma’s quiescence is not Björk’s fault, but how often can it be said that a film’s central character is one of its biggest faults while the performance of that same character is one of the best things to recommend it?

As with the movie as a whole, my response to Björk encompasses both admiration — for her considerable acting abilities — and annoyance, with the music she composed and performs here. Dancer in the Dark is the most unlikely musical ever made, unhappy and miserable where most are blissful and bright. Selma hears music in the noise of the factory, in the rattle of the train that runs through her yard, and these rhythms erupt, in her imagination, into song-and-dance numbers. The choreography (by Vincent Paterson) is stunning, but the songs are tuneless and atonal, and Björk’s singing can only be described as screeching.

The only thing to be said in favor of the fantasy musical routines, in fact, is that they grant the audience a much-needed reprieve from the dizzying, handheld documentary style with which von Trier (who served as his own camera operator) photographed the rest of the film. Shot on digital video, the imagery in the song sequences is grainy, superbright, and, thankfully, rock steady. If only the songs themselves were as compelling.

A pressing sense of imminent catastrophe hangs over Dancer in the Dark right from the outset — those ominously close railroad tracks and the menacing machine at which Selma works at the factory combined with a woman going blind seem like tragedies waiting to happen. But when tragedy does visit Selma, it becomes difficult to be sympathetic for her, and the aftermath starts to feel like von Trier’s desperate, pretentious attempt to steal the compassion he couldn’t earn by creating a more rounded, realistic character. By the end of the film, he has drawn out Selma’s distress beyond the point to which I’m willing to grant a filmmaker the opportunity to indulge himself.

For all that I groaned whenever it looked as if Selma was gonna burst into song again, for all that I kept glancing at my watch through the last hour and a half, I still couldn’t take my eyes off Dancer in the Dark. Far from unwatchable, this provocative film is still haunting and irritating me days later, and that’s probably the best reaction any artist could hope to elicit with his works.

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