Dancer in the Dark
Top Ten List: #1 of 2000 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #1 of 2000 (world premieres)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Lars von Trier. Cast: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour, Vladan Kostic, Vincent Paterson, Jean-Marc Barr, Joel Grey, Udo Kier. Screenplay: Lars von Trier.

Photo © 2000 Zentropa/Fine Line Features
Dancer in the Dark is a Greek tragedy. Not “like,” is. It is also, Lars von Trier would have us believe, the future of cinema, or a possible future for cinema. And this time I do believe him, at least more so than I believed Breaking the Waves, which was a technically gorgeous enterprise and an expansive flexing ground for its cast, but was also, on its lofty and ostentatious spiritual register, a lot of hogwash. In a way, I suppose, Dancer in the Dark could be called a more conservative work than Breaking the Waves, since at heart it eschews the realms of psychodrama and moral inquiry where Waves tended to run aground. In fact, the closest parallel to Dancer in the Dark in von Trier’s canon is his 1987 television adaptation of Medea: both pictures are determinedly and openly technical and generic experiments, attempts to transfer the mythology of certain forms (forms that tend themselves to center around mythology) to the cinema.

Bear with me: that’s a tortuous sentence, but Dancer in the Dark is full of tortuous ideas, though the film is appreciable and formidable on more than the idea-level. Why, you might ask, is von Trier using this movie to re-examine the capabilities of film technology? Because, in the year 2000, he of all people has no other choice. The Dogme ’95 rules of which he is the most famous co-author are threatening to become just as clichéd a system of filmmaking as the practices that Dogme sought to reinvigorate. Von Trier needs to prove that the cinema can still do things that other media can’t do, as well as approximate in unanticipated ways the conventions of other cultural forms. Happily, for those filmgoers who care, he isn’t just bluffing. Dancer in the Dark is transfixing and inspired. It feels new even when its inspirations are old, and its weaknesses are negligible in comparison to its fresh, unique strengths.

Not to get eggheaded or pretentious, I promise, but there’s some info here that I can’t write a coherent review without supplying. People don’t talk about this, but Greek tragedies were in large part musical events. Almost none of the scores have survived (as, indeed, have almost none of the tragedies), but we know that by the time of Euripides, the ritualistic song-and-dance portions of the “plays” all but overwhelmed the spoken, dialogic passages. They were also performed in front of the entire voting citizenship of Athens, and were therefore on several occasions barely-disguised distillations of civic or social debates and controversial issues. Von Trier’s Medea confirms that the filmmaker is interested in Greek tragedy, and it’s a stirring version (catch it on the Independent Film Channel, which broadcasts the film frequently, if you can), but also one that conforms sizably to the misconceptions that have generally accrued to the subject: that “tragic” works are severe, excoriatingly humorless, and certainly text-based pieces.

Dancer in the Dark much more bravely, and almost entirely without precedent, leaps into the attempt to show us what a Greek tragedy would look like now. Its central figure, Selma Yezkova (Björk), is an immigrant mother working in some artificially pastiched version of mid-20th century rural America. She holds down a job at a metalworking factory in order to save money for an eye operation desperately needed (though he does not know this) by her son, Gene (Vlada Kostic). Her selfless, obsessive commitment to Gene—Selma makes Mildred Pierce and Stella Dallas look like Miss Hannigan—drives her to working extreme hours on physically numbing tasks: pressing basins, filing bobby pins on cardboard sheets. Her best friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), scolds Selma for her relentless labors. Not only does Kathy not know of Gene’s potential blindness, she does know that Selma already suffers at the brink of that condition but that she refuses to slow down because of it. The only character who hears a peep about the grim circumstances of her life is Bill (David Morse), the local police officer and landlord of Selma’s trailer, who we quickly recognize is not as trusty a confidant as the credulous, optimistic Selma might have chosen.

Rather than detail the directions of the plot, which can be largely described anyway as the curve from bad to worse, I would like to remain focused on the irreverent formal daring of what Von Trier and his perfectly chosen colleagues have ventured to do with this movie. Undoubtedly, a few of the director’s dramatic predilections make insistent and sometimes costly appearances here. For instance, I am not sure that Selma needed to be as gullible and simple-minded a martyr-figure as Von Trier makes her, except that, for reasons best known to him, he seems rather untowardly fascinated by women who can’t say no. I also think that a climax of moral decision-making that occurs between Selma and Bill violates one of Dancer in the Dark’s most important formal principles, which is that the traits of its characters, and therefore the avenues of its plot, are mostly fixed by the time the film starts. Here we have a major departure from the example of Breaking the Waves, which posited its fundamental ethical provocation at the center of its running time and invited us to judge it: should Bess do that? (Watch the film to find out what “that” is.) Should Jan even ask for that? Does he, because he is drugged, or does she, because she is “touched,” even understand what he is proposing?

These kinds of questions are totally unsuited to Dancer in the Dark. Reviews, for example, that voice skepticism over whether Selma should be so devoted to her son seem to me to bark up the wrong tree, since we are given Selma’s maternal devotion as the definitive trait of her character. It is not even the point, as other write-ups have complained, that we do not feel Selma’s love for Gene, because again, our identification with Selma is not what this material is soliciting. To balk on these grounds is to evaluate Madame Butterfly in terms of whether the title character “should” love Pinkerton, or whether we reproduce her affection. That our impulses to identify with screen characters, particularly when played with the sheer emotive volcanism that Björk contributes in her first screen appearance, is an instant and perhaps inevitable reflex, but not necessarily the right one for this material. Rather, as in an opera, or an Athenian tragedy, we’re meant, I think, to examine the way that certain kinds of people are helplessly victimized by certain structures of society (here, we’re talking about medicine, economics, and the penal system) and to experience how a wide array of artistic practices—music, song, dance, and “acting” in the more familiar sense—can summon a walloping response from the outraged, helpless spectator.

Von Trier, his peerless cinematographer, Robby Müller, and Björk, not just as star but as the singer and composer of all the film’s music, certainly rise to the challenge of startling the audience with new and unforeseen techniques. “Cvalda,” the first musical sequence in Dancer in the Dark, which doesn’t arrive for a good 45 minutes, is the most sheerly enjoyable five minutes I’ve experienced all year at the movies—and this remained true all three times I saw it. The screen itself seems elated, as do Björk and costar Deneuve, who is stealthily electrifying in one of the most odd, daring parts in a generally fearless career. The unpredictable camera angles, the long handheld tracking shots, the sudden saturations of color, and the erratic leaps of Björk’s distinctive voice mean that we never know what we will see or hear next in this movie, an effect which reaps countless surprises, both pleasurable and horrifying (sometimes both). The dance sequences also offer illuminating counterpoint to a range of other events that suddenly seem like different kinds of choreographies: the courtroom trial, the walk to an execution.

Finally, within the script, the filmmakers have done a rich job of condensing an incredible range of American “myths” into the appropriately non-realist, ritual context of the proceedings: the “American dream” of financial advance and immigrant reestablishment, the escapes offered by stage musicals and Sirkian melodrama, the whole genre of maternal abnegation, even the landscape of then-current politics—it is no accident, I am sure, that David Morse, a dead ringer for Bill Clinton, is playing a powerful town leader called Bill Houston. Ironically, again, what might seem like the “turning point” of the film’s action (it revolves around an impossible dilemma and a deliberately-placed gun) is the one sequence that Dancer in the Dark doesn’t really need, almost can’t afford. Von Trier, who’s a provocateur even before he’s a director (and certainly before he’s a screenwriter), can’t help giving us another crackling ethical standoff to mull over, but his film isn’t about those kinds of circumstantial conflicts. I think it’s about fantasy and mortality: a dialectic alternation between how Selma dreams of her life and how life insists on determining Selma, where fantasy ineluctably leads toward mortality . . . but maybe the reverse is also true.

You know, people often tell me my reviews are too long, or occasionally too pointy-headed, and I think they are often correct to say so. But then, we are also consistently complaining that movies don’t get made anymore that require genuine thought, or a reconsideration of how we respond to movies, or a reappraisal of what movies do and how they cooperate with other art forms, some of them almost lost to us—or, in this movie’s language, almost lost to sight. I’ve said a lot here about Dancer in the Dark, and perhaps too much, but frankly I am thrilled to find a picture about which not enough can be said. This movie keeps showing new sides of itself and, because it burrows so deeply into routine filmmaking practices and questions what it finds there, keeps showing us new sides of the cinema as a whole. Von Trier has a smallish canon for such an important filmmaker, and Björk has already promised this will be her only appearance on film. It’s enough. A

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Song: "I've Seen It All"

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Björk
Best Original Song: "I've Seen It All"

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Palme d'or (Best Picture); Best Actress (Björk)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film
National Board of Review: Best Dramatic Musical Performance by an Actress (Björk)
Satellite Awards: Best Original Song: "I've Seen It All"

Permalink Home 2000 ABC Blog E-Mail