Tuesday, May 19, 2009

TOERIFC: Dancer in the Dark

[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.


Sam Juliano said...

Well, Ed, I completely disagree with this review lock, stock and barrel. This is my #1 film of 2000, and it view with both DOGVILLE and BREAKING THE WAVES as Von Trier's masterpiece. I know you have issued effusive praise for the former, and I suspect you are also a fan of the latter. Yes, it is "bleak and ugly" and the editing is disjointed, but this is the Dogme 95 filmmaking style he has embraced. Like Potter's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, when the film segues into the musical numbers, the effect is oddly mesmerizing and exhilarating. The song "I Can See" is extraordinarily moving. I agree the central performnces is electrifying, and Ms. Denueve is effective, but more importantly I feel Von Trier successfully blended the disperate elements to create a cmpelling and incomparably moving film like no other before or since. I applaud the Cannes voters for awarding this the Palme d'Or.

Still, Ed's position is hardly a singular one, and I greatly respect it. I've heard these issues before, and I know this film has divided critics. Fair enough.

Greg said...

Ed - Did you read this from the Bjork interview Pat posted. I thought it was interesting. Here's what Bjork said:

- We had different ideas about who Selma really was. I wanted her to be more of an artistic character but Lars , who is a complete fanatic, wants his role figures to suffer, especially the female ones. I couldn't really accept that. Selma has had a hard life and she is very imaginative due to all the times she has escaped from her problems into a fanatasy world. Her despair gives you an emotional kick, she makes you high! But Lars thought that was impossible. All the time he just wanted more and more dreadful things to happen to her and in the end she is even being executed. I thought that was a bit too simple, a bit too easy. But I don't think the whole film is based only on conflicts, it's a compromise between our different views. It's a combination between reality and fantasy just like a musical.

And Sam, DANCING IN THE DARK may employ some elements of Dogme 95 filmmaking but just to clarify it isn't. Dogme 95 film rules demand that the film have no sound editing (done here for the music scenes), no superficial action interpreted as and including murder so this one really breaks that rule, no props not found on site (like the gun), and most importantly, it takes place in the here and now and requires no special costume, prop or period elements. Period pieces are not allowed. Also they are supposed to be Acadmey ration which this is not.

So it does have some of the low budget elements of Dogme 95 while not being one although I really do admire von Triers for championing films done on the cheap with digital technology to make it more accessible to new filmmakers, even if I'm not particularly pleased with this result.

Sam Juliano said...

Fair enough Greg, you make a very good point. The Dogme 95 style was evident here, despite the subsequent sound editing and surrealism. That is what made this such a jarring, incomparable experience.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, I know some people really love this film, and that's cool. I'm still open to what Von Trier has to offer, and I'm strangely looking forward to seeing what kind of a mess Antichrist is.

Greg is right, though, that this is not a Dogme film at all. Von Trier very quickly broke the rules of Dogme and even spoke out publicly against the movement and its restrictions. I don't think he's the kind of filmmaker to be held down by any artificial constraints on his style. In this film, he seems to take the bits and pieces he likes from the Dogme stylebook and otherwise just does what he wants.

And Greg, that is an interesting quote. I definitely got a sense from the film that Bjork was sometimes working against the grain of Von Trier's storytelling, bringing more depth and joy to Selma's portrayal. Bjork was definitely the best thing about the film. I love her music, love her voice, and love the sweet, elfin quality she brings to her performance here.

Kevin J. Olson said...

"I love her music, love her voice, and love the sweet, elfin quality she brings to her performance here."

That's a great way of saying it, Ed. I've always thought with this film that Bjork was the best part; and really, with all of von Trier's films, they succeed not because of the limited abilities of the Dogme movement, but because of the fierceness of the lead performances, usually by women. Emily Watson and Bjork are perfect examples of two actresses who hide the limits of von Trier's abilities and convince the viewer that what they're watching is a good movie. I don't think there's particularly anything great about Breaking the Waves, but it's the perfect example of how a performance can elevate a film to greatness. I would have to say the same thing about Bjork and her performance in both acting and song; it's the only thing that stayed with me weeks after viewing Dancer, and now that I've seen it three times (all at different stages of my film-going life...2000, 2004, 2009) I am certain that people should just buy the soundtrack. Maybe that's a bit too harsh, von Trier, I guess, is always worth a look -- he's a train wreck kind of director who can't be ignored.

I'm kind of indifferent to this film. I know people who really love this thing, but I wonder what most of them would say a week or two later when they really think about what they saw. I have a friend down at AFI film school who sent me a text message the other day saying it was the best film he's ever seen. I was shocked, but I was guessing a lot of that was hyperbole, because once the euphoria has worn off, the film, for me, has big problems.

Knowing my friend, and what he values in film, it's hard for me to believe that this is the best film he's ever seen (especially for someone who is interning with his idol Terrence Malick right now; two directors, von Trier and Malick, could not be further apart), but that's just because I know my friend so well. I certainly can see Sam's side of things -- when viewed as just an experience, the film sometimes sweeps you up in drab paws and you succumb to von Trier's tactics; however, it's only when I start to contemplate the film, and what it's trying to do and say through the horribly limiting and distracting aesthetics, that I get discouraged and throw my hands up ion the air, frustrated, as usual, with von Trier and his amateur antics.

Great write-up, Ed. I really enjoyed the conversation over at Pat's blog and my first foray into TOERIFC.

Patricia Perry said...

Ed - Very fine write-up. I think you really nail what goes wrong (for me and you and a few others, anyway) with the musical numbers.

On the subject of "Antichrist," Roger Ebert has a really thoughtful, non-hyeterical take on his blog today that is well worth reading.

Patricia Perry said...

That's "non-hysterical". God, this is just not my day for typing!!!!!

Ed Howard said...

Kevin - looks like we pretty much agree on this film. I won't question the reactions of those who love this film, but "best film ever" is hyperbole for pretty much anything.

Pat, thanks. I *really* enjoyed your TOERIFC pick and your great post; you presided over a wonderful discussion. And I read the Ebert review and remain curious to see Von Trier's newest, even though I suspect I won't really like it.

Erich Kuersten said...

Good work, Ed! To me this film is just a worthy middle ground between WAVES and DOGVILLE, rooted in the time and place I saw it - late one Sunday night at a theater on 3rd Ave and 59th St in NYC, with an two women angry at me for different reasons and all of us sitting too close and getting nauseous from the jerky camera work, then one of the women leaves and I see the rest in the back row and get up to go to the bathroom towards the end and see the guy who plays Bjork's lawyer fixing himself up at the sink! Just a NY actor checking out his own performance on a late Sunday evening, no big deal, he could tell I recognized him and we just exchanged a weary smile, crossing the dividing line of the film like two cops at the scene of a plane crash. Then I went back to the theater and by the end was a crying, hysterical mess - went outside and it was pouring rain... walked home 30 blocks in it soaking in the masochistic misery... a one of a kind meta viewing experience but one I would never repeat again, which is the thing about Von Trier - just because he's a genius and his movies are grand and life changing and deeply emotional doesn't mean you want to own them, or even acknowledge you know them if they pass you on the street.

Ed Howard said...

That's a great story, Erich. It's interesting that sometimes the circumstances in which we see a movie affect us almost as much as the movie itself.

Anonymous said...

Unwatchable. Lars Trier is a charlatan. However, it's no surprise that the female lead was executed. In this respect, he was on the money.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful summation of the film. I saw both Dogville and Breaking the Waves before seeing this, so I wasn't really surprised by Selma's martyrdom. Von Trier seems to have a tendency to be sadistic with his female characters. He continues this pattern in Antichrist as well.

I'm curious to know what you think of Europa.