Dancer in the Dark

Björk stars in Dancer in the Dark.
(© 2000 Fine Line Features. All rights reserved.)

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Almost everything about Dancer in the Dark is shamelessly ludicrous. From the musical overture that opens the film to the casting of pop singer Björk in the lead, there’s enough stylistic exuberance to make everyone a critic. The story feels equally undisciplined: Selma, a Czech émigré factory worker who’s going blind, must save enough money to give her son a life saving operation. The love of Selma’s life is the American musical, and throughout the movie, we go inside her head as she conjures up intricate song-and-dance numbers to alleviate her daily suffering. The story is haphazardly melodramatic, but writer/director Lars von Trier makes no apologies. Clearly he is in full provocateur mode, practically daring us to hate his movie. Every scene goes for broke. And while some have undeniable power, most of them fall flat. The reason for this, I suspect, is because Selma’s suffering becomes the point of the movie, a point which von Trier takes too far. What he can’t make sense of narratively (which is a lot) he covers up with his signature anti-flourishes, the hand held camera, the grainy video, as a means to distract us from the emptiness that is his screenplay. The Cannes jury was obviously distracted long enough to award it the Palme D’Or. But the audience at the New York Film Festival, which Dancer opened on September 22nd, will be less lenient. They will probably accept his dare and hold him accountable for this shameless exercise in exploitation.

Those viewers who’ve seen von Trier’s Breaking the Waves will experience a weird form of deja-vu. Dancer’s Selma is in many ways the spiritual sister of Waves’ Bess. You get the feeling that both had cold, miserable childhoods dominated by angry spinsters. Now in their thirties and suffering from eternal girlhood, they live under the watch of an over-protective friend (Catherine Deneuve in Dancer and Katrin Cartlidge in Waves). Like Bess, Selma has an other-worldliness, a kind of innate beatitude mixed with Virgin Mary purity. We watch Selma repeatedly spurn the advances of an aw-shucks neighbor (Peter Stormare). "I don’t want a boyfriend," she insists each time he offers to drive her home in his pick-up. The absence of a father for her son implies an immaculate conception. On top of that, she is set to play the role of Maria von Trapp in a neighborhood production of The Sound of Music. Movie heroines don’t come more wholesome than this.

Selma and Bess could very well be the same person for all von Trier cares. They are to him what worms and beetles are to mean little boys: interchangeable objects of sadistic pleasure. Late in Dancer, after a plot twist that would drive D.W. Griffith mad with jealousy, Selma must commit a horrible act of murder. It’s a messy scene, filled with blood and the sound of crunching bone. Selma not only has to shoot a close friend, but bash his skull in over and over again. The intensity of the scene is devastating; we literally cringe. But von Trier is at a loss for ideas here. Yes, Selma is capable of terrible things, but what else? The scene reveals more about von Trier: his misogynistic tendencies (the men in his movies get off relatively easy) find orgasmic release in female suffering. In what can only be described as morbid fascination, he relentlessly angles in on Selma’s anguished face in blunt determination to prevent her wounds from healing.

The musical numbers offer some respite from all the intensity, but they are problematic. Visually, they have a grubby, amateurish quality that undermines their function as Selma’s only form of escape. Selma is supposed to be in love with the Hollywood musical and would logically dream up something in glorious Technicolor with smooth tracking shots. Instead, von Trier uses a series of fixed digital cameras to shoot them, and while he manages to capture some interesting angles (an overhead shot of dancing factory workers is stunning for its bleakness), the dancing feels over edited and the rhythm flounders. Imposing the Dogme aesthetic on the musical scenes was a mistake. It callously substitutes Selma’s voice with von Trier’s and makes it clear why Björk reportedly stormed off the set in disagreement over the editing of her music.

While Björk ’s songs barely emerge intact, her acting, which almost saves this movie from total failure, fares much better. Björk is Selma; the two are inseparable. Whether she’s staring out the window, or singing "Raindrops on Roses" to herself, we have the feeling that she is there living the scene, not just acting it. Her achievement is even greater considering the sheer absurdities von Trier contrives for her in the final act. In what slowly becomes a masochistic streak, Selma refuses to defend herself in court, resulting in her conviction and imprisonment. "I promised not to say," she mutters when asked why she murdered a man, and for that brief second when the words leave Björk ’s mouth, we are totally convinced. While in prison, she refuses to see her son for whom she suffers so much, and turns down an appeal that would save her from execution. Whether or not Selma is insane is debatable; what is clear is von Trier’s determination to finish her off in the most painfully drawn out manner possible. The final scene plays out like a sick fantasy. Try watching it without turning away in horror -- or disgust.

Does von Trier admire Selma? He does, but in the same way a master admires an obedient slave. She is after all his creation, and try as Björk may to give her life, von Trier ultimately determines her fate. There’s no challenge here. To make a movie where characters exist only to suffer is like playing God, a job that von Trier assumes too eagerly. His God is an unforgiving one. Unlike Bess, Selma isn’t elevated to sainthood in the end. This time, the heroine really does go to hell.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]


Dancer in the Dark Official Site
Dancer in the Dark UK Site
Dancer in the Dark Fine Line Features Site
New York Film Festival Official Site