DANCER IN THE DARK — Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2000, 10
This film, the best of 2000, finally won Von Trier the prize he had been craving a bit too openly for the taste of many, the Palme D’Or at Cannes along with a Best Actress prize from Icelandic chanteuse Bjork. And he won over a damn impressive competition field — SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, YI YI, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, CODE UNKNOWN, and FAITHLESS all made my Top 10 for the year they won US release, and CHUNHYANG nearly did. Other people I respect (though not me) loved EUREKA and ESTHER KAHN, and I’ve yet to see the highly-regarded DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP and GOHATTO.
The plot is pure 30s Hollywood melodrama — mother works multiple jobs to save enough money for an operation to save her son from the same Movie Disease that is causing her to lose her own sight. She fantasizes music to relieve the misery, until she loses her job and then all her money is stolen. And then things start to go bad. DANCER is very similar to BREAKING THE WAVES in style (the same washed-out look and dizzying handheld camera for the drama scenes) and in its general “Lives of the Saints book” story arc (although worship of God is replaced by worship of Hollywood musicals, and love for a crippled husband is replaced with love for a son going blind). The musical scenes themselves are shot in a quite different style from the drama scenes, all on static digital cameras, with an oversaturated color scheme and heavier editing.
Von Trier, whose public persona is so puckish and ironic, aims here for a deeply felt, all-out appeal to the emotions — an old-fashioned melodramatic “weepie” with no concessions to po-mo sensibilities (possibly excepting the particulars of Bjork’s music). And it works best by being embraced in a straight-ahead, irony-free, face-value manner and avoiding games about genre deconstruction or meta-distanciation. A naivete as utter as Selma’s; one that ties you to her. DANCER should not have worked on me — I generally wouldn’t call myself a fan of Three-Hankie weepies, and Von Trier took away all the theology that I found so fascinating in BREAKING THE WAVES. And he still made a deeply unfashionable masterpiece.
DANCER uses the plot and some of the conventions of a melodrama, but uses the the particularly contemporary genius of Bjork and Von Trier to produce identification with its heroine as thorough as I ever recall getting from a motion picture. In the normal tear-jerker, things are just a little too pretty … what Roger Ebert calls Ali McGraw’s Disease being one example, weeping violin strings on the score being another. Here what Von Trier does is use the same outlandish plots but treat them with deadpan seriousness, exactly the opposite of today’s fashionably Coenesque smirking. The hand-held, washed-out camera gives these ludicrous events immediacy and reality in the way that 30s studio sets and star lighting and makeup schemes just emphasize the phoniness. As for score, I don’t recall a single snatch of nondiegetic music except in the sequences that are explicitly palyed as fantasies. That music itself is Bjorkish — which is say deliberately nonpretty (which is not to say not-moving or in some sense beautiful).
In altering the melodramatic formula in these ways, so many critics tried to justify it by arguing that Von Trier was playing genre games or subverting this or foregrounding that (and in that sense my reaction is somewhat anti-intellectual). If you don’t resist this movie’s mere existence and formula, it’s unbelievably simple. In my favorite sequence in the movie, when Selma and Bill share their secrets, Von Trier uses the most old-fashioned but still effective camera strategy, he just gets really close to the actors’ faces. I mean REALLY REALLY close — at one point there’s nothing in the widescreen frame but Selma’s face from the eyebrow ridge to the nose — exactly how one acts and feels when sharing deep, dark intimacies (in several senses).
As for Bjork, I’ll cite Catherine Deneuve’s statement that “she can’t act. She can only be.” There is never an actorish mannerism in her, never a moment when we see Bjork sense that she’s got a great bit of Palme bait in her hands. When she’s singing “A Few of My Favorite Things” to herself in her jail cell or “The Next to Last Song” on the gallows, there’s absolutely no way to question the guttural despair, the depth of agony in that voice. I mean, if Bjork’s performance doesn’t strike one as a brilliant example of naturalistic acting, all I can do is shake my head and wonder what one thinks such a thing is.
To quote a Pauline Kaelism some seem to think is damning, DANCER is the sort of movie that makes you feel protective — toward Selma, toward her son, toward Bjork as Selma, even in an odd way toward the sheriff, and ultimately toward the movie itself. It tweaks your operatic responses until, dammit, you’re Selma up there on the gallows at the end. DANCER exists wholly on the level of this sort of emotional involvement or identification, which is the best of all possible worlds for a tearjerker like this because you then look past the implausibilities and lack of “serious, constructive” social criticism as mere cavilling … “can’t you see what matters here” is the rough thought process.
This IS, as I say, an uncritical or anti-intellectual response, but very few films can achieve these heights of pathos. It’s not so much that just blustering operatic emotion is so *easy* (I think picking at continuity errors or dissecting sociopolitical allegories is every bit as *easy*) as that such blubbering is the right response to DANCER, if the film works at all. But maybe this is not the last song, as Bjork sings a song “New World” over the credits, which doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie and seems to be from the POV of a dead woman. So the movie can just go on forever …
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