Directed by Lars von Trier
Released in 2000
There is a moment in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark when the sadness becomes just too much to bear. It is not one particular scene; there are a good half dozen that push the infirm Selma (Björk) into unwinnable scenarios, each worse than the one preceding. Different viewers will reach different moments and break in different ways. Some will sob, in full faith of the film’s melodrama, while others will fume and swear and call the whole thing trash. For me, director and writer von Trier pushed too far about 15 minutes from the end, when he crossed some unacknowledged threshold of mine where tragedy twists into sadism and emotion into forgery. I was fully aware the flickering frames were nothing more than an artificial creation aimed at extorting maximum misery from its viewer. Up to that point, however, Dancer in the Dark balanced its pain with its pathos and caught me under its experimental spell.
This 2000 film is set in Washington State in 1964, though von Trier does not take great lengths to transform his native Denmark and Sweden into an American period setting. With digital video cinematography, the aesthetic looks rather timeless, in a grainy, neorealist kind of way. Selma’s primary struggle —coping with illness in poverty — is timeless by itself, so she also faces more severe mid-century injustices, like misogyny and the Red Scare, although on little more than a cursory level. As it stands, Selma, a Czech immigrant, works a monotonous job in a metal processing factory, saving her minimal wages in a tin container for her son’s optic surgery. He suffers from the same hereditary disease that is turning her blind. Even with her magnifying glass spectacles, she can barely see a thing, yet she insists on walking home every night, shuffling between the railroad tracks that pass by her trailer home.
Selma escapes through music. The factory’s metronomic clangs or tonal hisses entrance her into song, which, in turn, propels the film into full stop musical numbers. Von Trier brightens the washed-out colors and cuts furiously between dozens of cameras for the five songs, which, while confined to Selma’s mind, progress the story by reflecting on what has happened or is soon to take place. The choreography and effort put into the music’s production is as sincere as anything Gene Kelly or Stanley Donen tackled in the 1950s. Of course, von Trier adds his depraved touch, like when he reanimates a corpse for a ballad or directs his characters to frolic about death row. Von Trier’s unorthodox staging matches Björk’s alien voice, which freely climbs and falls octaves as “industrial” rhythms loop in the background. Dancer in the Dark reaches beauty when it resorts to music; considering the first song enters nearly 40 minutes in, perhaps it should have included more of it.
A multitude of familiar character actors join Björk, who swore off acting after this draining experience. David Morse (The Green Mile) plays an anemic police officer who provides Selma and her son a place to live, and Cara Seymour (American Psycho) serves as his witless wife. Peter Stormare (Fargo) once again plays a dim simpleton, here pining over Selma and seducing her with car rides after work, which she politely refuses. Swedish star Stellan Skarsgard (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Zeljko Ivanek (Damages) and Siobhan Fallon (Men in Black) fill in smaller roles that remain potent, especially in Fallon’s case. Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour) nails an unexpected lead as Selma’s closest confidant and mother figure, Kathy, clocking in the second-most screen time in the process. One of the cinema’s few canonical beauties, Deneuve wears minimal makeup in an unglamorous performance that relies on a lot of stricken reaction shots as she watches misfortune ruin her dear friend.
And there is plenty of misfortune. Independent cinema prides itself with probing the depths of human nature — John Cassavettes started the anti-industry with his rough domestic drama A Woman Under the Influence. So, not only is Lars von Trier excused to provoke, it’s his job. He mostly eschews shot reverse shot, instead panning back and forth or zooming in with a handheld camera as characters pour out their hearts to one another. I bought it all, including the central, agonizing scene of betrayal, perhaps because Björk seemed as shocked as her character Selma. It is after this point when, not only does the magic dissipate — that is clearly the point — but the passion devolves into artifice. There is no apparent self-referential commentary that von Trier wants to impart by calling to attention the deceit of his medium (they’re actors!), and the social backgrounds of his characters are so shallow that the Brechtian technique of gestus — “character action typical of a class” — seems an invalid excuse.
“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens,” Selma muses, with a smile. It is von Trier’s simple-minded goal to defy that thesis. Some will be able to weep in acceptance of his vision. Some will seek to burn the man in effigy. I am thankful for much of the film’s beauty, as embodied aboard a slow-moving train during the Oscar-nominated song “I’ve Seen it All.” Dancer in the Dark sees music as a buffer from life’s ills and the common force between all mankind. It’s the hackneyed case that mankind is callous and evil that I could have done without.
3 Stars Out of 5