Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DANCER IN THE DARK (2000, Denmark, Lars von Trier)

This is a musical, and there's always someone to catch me.

You get the impression Lars is a messed up guy, and that just maybe he's got serious problems with women.

After filming DOGVILLE, Nicole Kidman withdrew from the three film series, citing "schedule conflicts." Uh hun. Bryce Dallas Howard showed up to take over her role in the sequel and couldn't figure out why this strange European man kept throwing water at her. (Opie, didn't you warn her? Maybe you should have rented your daughter that documentary about this guy's work with actors on THE IDIOTS: they didn't call it THE HUMILIATED for nothing). Shooting DANCER IN THE DARK, his relationship with Bjork became so contentious she disappeared from the set for three days, after biting off a piece of his shirt! (Though separating fact from fiction on a Zentropa project is impossible.) Von Trier originally cast himself as the angry man who berates Selma for talking in the movie theatre, but he bowed out of the role when he realized his animosity toward the actress might result in him playing the scene with a bit too much force. Bjork vowed never to make another film. With anyone.

It is possible to see the Danish director's films as nothing but elaborately constructed mechanisms designed to inflict the maximum suffering on the most helpless possible female victims. And while his woman protagonists are inevitably innocent, appealing, even holy victims, they are invariably victims, and that's a troubling fit with his on-set treatment of the actresses who play them.

But that would be reductive. The Danish director may also be a genius: while lots of American critics couldn't get past DOGVILLE's Yankee-baiting, there are many others who believe it is one of the truly great films of the new millenium. Me included. And if you don't think crass and fallen people can make great art, even God-glorifying art, maybe you need to go rent AMADEUS.

The first two-thirds of DANCER IN THE DARK is filled with such dread it's almost unwatchable – apart from its artistic daring, the justly celebrated performance of Bjork in the lead role, and our hope, based on other LvT films, that there may be a redemptive (if agonizing) payoff to it all eventually. The Icelandic pop star plays Selma, a desperately poor European immigrant to a small American factory town who struggles to build a life for herself and her boy. Her childlike innocence is so extreme that we initially wonder if she's simple-minded: she often daydreams around the heavy factory machinery, caught up in in exhilarating fantasies where she imagines herself a character in an American-style musical – all singing, all dancing, all happy endings!

We soon learn that part of what we see as other-worldy-mindedness results from the fact that her eyesight is rapidly deteriorating, due to an hereditary condition. We watch her fall into the blindness her self-sufficient spirit won't allow her to reveal, riding a bicycle to work or walking home along the railway tracks that guide her steps. You see what I mean about dread.

Everything works together to render the poor woman terrifyingly vulnerable, not only to trains and traffic and the heavy factory machinery Selma operates (she cheated on the vision exam), but also to the predatory human nature that may lie behind the apparently helpful facades of people around her; the simple-minded man who obsessively offers her a ride home from work each day, the landlord who takes a fatherly interest in her boy and confides his late-night troubles to Selma alone in her trailer, her over-solicitous director in an amateur production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, even women friends who find themselves troubled or threatened by her self-reliance and influence on their lives.

I hope I'm not revealing too much in saying that the film does offer some transcendence in the face of all this pain: suffice it to say that DANCER is as bleak as it is hopeful, an observation which shouldn't surprise anybody who knows anything about good old Lars. My disappointment is that, once all hell breaks loose (as we know from the opening moments that it must, as all hell is wont to do), the film loses much of its power as plot machineries begin to creak like poorly maintained instruments of torture, and desperately improvising actors push for emotional climaxes that begin to feel contrived, melodramatic, sentimental. I'm not referring to the intentionally melodramatic notes of Selma's fantasy sequences, raising the dead and flinging open prison doors, or the intentional David Lynch-like incursions of soap opera and movie melodrama: it's the bathetic straining for emotional effect in the "real-life" moments that undermines things for me in the film's final reel.

Even when my pendulum-opinion of this love-it/hate-it film swings to the cynical side, I can't forget the audacity of those train-car or courtroom dance sequences, or the truer-than-Guffman skewering of those ultra-amateur SOUND OF MUSIC rehearsals. And as qualmy as I am about the creepy resonance between the director's real and fictional worlds, I cannot help but admire his sometimes floundering attempts at the catharsis of genuine tragedy, his occasionally ham-handed efforts at fashioning statues of self-sacrificing saints from the muck of his own screwed up psyche.


All three films available at Videomatica

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