PRINT October 2000


Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark

IT SOUNDS GOOD on paper. Lars von Trier, bold, gifted, iconoclastic Danish director, completes his long, tantrum-filled mission to win the Cannes Film Festival's—and serious filmdom's—award of awards, the Palme d'Or, and is cemented as one of the greats. But this isn't the '70s, and taking first prize at Cannes last May doesn't automatically make Dancer in the Dark a classic or assure von Trier's position in the pantheon. Those who've seen his shape-shifting oeuvre as proof that European avant-garde film survived the senility, retirement, and death of its postwar masters were understandably champing at the bit. Fresh off cofounding the better-than-nothing film movement Dogma '95, directing the shockingly-good-in-parts crossover hit Breaking the Waves (1996), and bombing his future in Hollywood with the ferocious, controversy-baiting Dogma entry The Idiots (1998), von Trier seemed ready to fulfill his longstanding potential and, in so doing, meet Cannes's relatively highbrow if weathered standards.

Until you actually lay eyes on Dancer in the Dark—which opens in theaters this month on the heels of its US premiere at the New York Film Festival—it has everything going for it. Von Trier's preproduction announcement that the Dogma manifesto contained heretofore unacknowledged loopholes, plus his proven talent as a quick-change stylist, left the film's form enticingly in question. His decision to make a musical suggested that he might be ready to address the sloppy, indulgent structures that can misshape even his best work. Icelandic pop star and songwriter Björk, who is cast in the lead, has as much talent and integrity as anyone in the music biz, not to mention a Liza Minelli–like charisma that could easily fill a screen. No matter how huff-and-puffed up von Trier's reputation, odds were good that the film would be an event, if not quite a divine intervention.

Dancer in the Dark concludes von Trier's gradual evolution from poète maudit to quasi documentarian. Early works like Medea (1987) and Zentropa (1991) laid the cinematography on thick and backpedaled narrative into a rumpled sketch. This lavish murkiness was an acquired taste, but von Trier's borderline-pretentious imagery was juiced with a complex tonal weirdness, at once operatic, self-absorbed, spiritual, and blackly ironic. Severe auteurial self-consciousness battled severely grim subject matter to a curious stalemate, leaving the work so overwrought yet absurdly refined that most critics, both pro and con, were left debating how seriously his seriousness should be taken. With Breaking the Waves, the visuals were deemphasized and the story line forefronted, but the director's moody prankishness remained in full operation. Seen by some as a real breakthrough for a new, less artsy and ironic von Trier, the film was in fact a kind of audience-friendly remix of his familiar pomp, archness, and soul searching. Breaking the Waves may have amped up the realism, but style continued to function as a pervasive if ambient qualifier. That final image of a heavenly, computer-animated ringing bell struck some as an extraneous, postmodern smirk, the last vestige of von Trier's old, bad habits; but in light of Dancer in the Dark, it's clear that he can't go very far without them.

Dancer is being sold as a musical tragedy, and von Trier himself has characterized the film as an attempt to merge his love of compatriot cineast Carl Dreyer's sublime starkness with his love of the iconic American musical West Side Story. In the context of von Trier's work to date, it's tempting to take Dancer's sappy, amateurish, over-the-top melodrama and sub-Music Man song-and-dance numbers for a poker-faced scam. But everything else about it—the cast's flawlessly sincere performances, von Trier's rough-hewn, attentive camerawork, Björk's characteristically emotive, poetic songs—suggests that viewers should be reaching teary-eyed for the Prozac. If the intent is tongue-in-cheek, Dancer in the Dark is one of the most transparent, pointless, and ugly-spirited formal exercises in memory. (Unless, of course, you buy the argument that, at this point, we can only experience genuine sentiment under the self-protective cover of parody.) But if von Trier really is going for a more traumatic, grittier Dead Man Walking meets Norma Rae with a handful of joyous musical interludes, then the film is such a miscalculated mess that it's hard to know where to start picking it apart.

Rather than abandon or transcend Dogma's anti-Hollywood strictures, von Trier merely cheats a little, adding a score, credits, in-camera visual effects, and a hoary, sentimental plot, making the film feel a little like Martin Ritt goes avant-garde, minuscule budget and all. In short, Björk plays Selma, a Czech factory worker who lives in some small American town in the Pacific Northwest (shot, as it happens, in Sweden). Secretly going blind, Selma works double shifts in order to raise money for her son, who's also going blind, but doesn't know it, and needs an operation to save his vision. (It's too late for Mom.) Occasionally, Selma drifts into daydreams wherein life is a Hollywood musical (if only for the duration of a dance number), and she its beloved star. One of her friends is a depressed cop in financial straits. He steals her money; she confronts him; he asks her to kill him; in order to get her money back, she does it. She's arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. She won't save herself by testifying about her son's impending blindness, since the stress of knowing he's about to go blind might worsen his vision and ruin the chances of a successful operation. (Presumably, her execution is no biggie.) Her down-to-earth best friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), finds out the truth just in time, but the only way Selma can get a retrial is to use the money for her son's surgery to pay for a lawyer, so she chooses to die.

Björk acts her heart out, and while it's quite odd to see her cry hysterically and fire a gun, she is never anyone but the winsome, opaque pop star of such established intrigue. Von Trier would have us believe that Selma's quirkiness derives from a nostalgic love of old musicals, but you don't buy it for a second. Deneuve's performance is Catherine Deneuve in method actor–ish quotation marks. A variety of American character actors do their best to seem quintessentially American, while cameos by von Trier regulars like Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgkd keep reminding you that the film was actually shot in Europe without providing any commentary whatsoever on von Trier's mishmashed, uninflected, outsider image of American culture. Everyone just seems lost in the film's jagged, pseudo-honestly visualized drift, and it doesn't take long to realize that nothing the actors could possibly do will keep the astonishingly implausible story line from concluding with an ambiguous pan into the meaningful nothingness of the heavens, this time sans ringing bell. The apparent point? Reality is a cold, cruel place; dreams will get you nowhere, and then you die—and then whatever. In other words, duh, boo-hoo, and maybe wink wink.

One thing you could always say on von Trier's behalf is that he's a nervy artist with a lot of visual flair—a bona fide enfant terrible. But with Dancer in the Dark he has accidentally exposed a huge problem in his work overall, which may help viewers exorcise the haunting, elusive quality that gave his earlier films their genius-esque vibe. The guy has no heart, and he was very lucky that Breaking the Waves' Emily Watson has such a big, uncontainable one. The French are welcome to differ, but von Trier might be wise to leave plaintive realism to someone who cares (say, Dogma teammate Thomas Vinterberg) and stick to doing what he evidently does best—pulling new wool over the wool that he has already pulled over our eyes.