[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's selection is courtesy of Pat from Doodad Kind of Town. Visit the site to see Pat's thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]
Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark is a bleak, ugly film, relentlessly grim in its depiction of the rapid downward spiral of the Czech immigrant, struggling single mother, factory worker and would-be musical star Selma Jezkova (Björk). Selma suffers from a rare disease that runs in her family, causing her to go blind at a young age, and she's already in the final stages, losing the last of her sight and descending into blackness. Before she does, she is desperate to work as hard as she can and save up as much money as she can, so that she can pay for the operation that her son Gene (Vladica Kostic) needs, to prevent him from meeting the same fate as his mother. This is a tearjerking premise, and von Trier is intent on milking as much pathos and anguish as he can out of his poor heroine. It's not enough that she's going blind, not enough that she's destitute, living in a trailer and struggling to scrape together the money she needs for her son, not enough that she has a rather pathetic but earnest admirer in Jeff (Peter Stormare), but has no time to foster a relationship with him. On top of all this, she's soon also betrayed by her neighbor and friend Bill (David Morse), a local cop who's despairing because his money has run out and he's no longer able to give his pretty, stylish wife (Cara Seymour) the lifestyle she's accustomed to. This betrayal leads Selma to even lower depths, towards a denouement so tragic it's devastating.
Or, at least, it would be, if von Trier's behind-the-scenes puppetry weren't so blatantly obvious, if the strings he was pulling to set this weepy drama in action weren't so visible. Subtle is not the first word that comes to mind here. If there's anything that von Trier can do to increase his scenario's tragedy, he does it. This isn't a realistic tragedy, and it isn't even a stylized melodrama: after a while, it becomes very nearly a laundry list of the bad things that can befall a person by a combination of bad luck, betrayal and astonishingly terrible decision-making. It's grating, especially when von Trier inserts exaggerated anti-American caricatures, like Selma's co-worker who calls her a "Commie" and tells her, with no provocation, that she shouldn't prefer her homeland to "the US of A." At moments like this, von Trier's hands on the strings slip into the frame, exposing the contrived nature of this whole artifice. The film is an elaborate Rube Goldberg device designed to destroy Selma, and it's an especially cruel trap since it's been set by her own creator, the writer/director who called into being simply because she'd be especially pathetic and easy to tear apart.
Indeed, Selma is a true naif, totally oblivious to the ways of the world, staggering blindly through life — first metaphorically, then literally. She's obsessed with Hollywood musicals, and loves to go to them even after she starts losing her sight; she can still listen to the music, and she has her caring friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve in a wonderful supporting performance) to explain what's happening or tap out the rhythms of the dances on Selma's palm. She had always imagined America as being very much like the images in the movies, and if reality doesn't always measure up, she daydreams this glamorous Hollywood life into existence. What makes this character so moving, in spite of all von Trier's manipulations, is the sensitive and sweet performance of Björk, who invests this childlike woman with depth and intensity. Von Trier's aesthetics are often distractingly bland and anestheticized; in trying to capture the dull, deadening surfaces of Selma's life, he does it so well that his film looks like a dull, dead TV show, a "reality show." However, he wisely spends much of the film in probing, tight closeups on Selma, and Björk's expressive face, so mobile and unique, conveys the inner complexities of her character.
Björk also provides the music for Selma's daydreams and fantasies, which frequently burst through the prosaic routine of her life, turning tragic scenes into occasions for weird, robotically choreographed musical numbers. These scenes are indescribably odd and off-kilter, the work of choreographer Vincent Paterson, who conceived of Selma's inner life as a kind of kitschy, stiff take on the Busby Berkeley musical numbers she loves so much. Underpinned by mechanical rhythms and repetitive motions, these pieces really do look like the work of someone who has studied and loved Hollywood musical forms but isn't entirely sure how to put them together for herself. As a result, only Selma moves freely through these dreams, twirling and dancing, her flowing motion offset against the awkward, mechanized movements around her. She finds music everywhere, especially in the rhythms of industrial society — the noise of the machines in the factory where she works, the clank of the trains near her home — and her musical numbers as a result have a pseudo-industrial drive beneath the soaring, saccharine Hollywood strings.
Of course, it's Björk's typically quirky, active music and Paterson's choreography that drive these musical numbers. Von Trier's contributions are mostly negative, particularly in the way that he chops up the mise en scène of these performances, cutting to odd angles at a fast pace. His editing does great damage to the musical numbers, fracturing the internal rhythms of the music and dancing, forcing his own distinct rhythms onto the material. It adds an unnecessary disjunctive layer to all the musical scenes, with von Trier's choices jarring against the choreography and the meaning of these interludes as an escape for Selma. In fact, the most interesting aspect of the film as a musical is how unbearably sad its musical interludes are, infused as they are with the knowledge of Selma's tragic life, with the certainty that these are just ephemeral fantasies, unable to stave off the next inevitable disaster for very long. The film thus vacillates between an appreciation of fantasy as a way of making life bearable, and a rather savage denunciation of the Hollywood dream machine for delivering fantasies with no tangible connection to reality.
But then, von Trier's film has just as few threads connecting it to actual reality. The director has often been accused of fostering anti-American sentiment in his later film Dogville, but those accusations seem misplaced; it's Dancer in the Dark that presents a straw America for von Trier to rant against, while Dogville is a much richer, deeper film. Here, von Trier seems to want it both ways, stylizing intensely while making choices calculated to suggest ordinary reality: the flat aesthetic of the non-musical scenes, the unglamorous portrayal of his lead actress, the barren rural wasteland of the setting, overgrown and desolate. One senses that this is von Trier's idea of presenting unvarnished reality, but his cruel control over this supposed verisimilitude is distracting; the minimalist theatricality of Dogville is more honest and, paradoxically, more real. Dancer in the Dark is propelled by a marvelous central performance, and the beautifully strange music that Björk brings to the film, but this only makes von Trier's wallowing in misery especially hard to take. Both Björk and Selma deserve better than this film is able to give them.