Dancer In The Dark

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

DANCER IN THE DARK

9/10

Denmark 2000
dir/scr. Lars Von Trier
cin. Robby Muller
stars Bjork, Catherine Deneuve
139 minutes

Dancer In The Dark is like a trick painting that only makes sense viewed from one angle – to be precise, the director’s own perspective. The key to the film is understanding that Von Trier, as any interview with him will illustrate, takes nothing seriously – nothing, that is, outside of his own vast ego and talent. Anyone going into his movie expecting some kind of statement on the values of escapism, or society’s oppression of individuals, or the death penalty, or any kind of coherent exploration of mature topics, can only emerge angered and disappointed – and more fool them. Von Trier just isn’t interested in any of those things: this is new terrain he’s charting, and he dares us to follow along.

In my view, Dancer In The Dark is the first great film of the new decade, but it’s quite unlike any great film ever made before. I’m talking about more than originality: Dancer is, in some ways, a ridiculous piece of work, one which has split critics audiences right down the middle, inspiring tears and nausea, admiration and disbelief in roughly equal measure. I understand such extreme reactions, but I think that they’re equally misplaced, resulting from fundamental misconceptions of what Lars Von Trier is up to.

He’s nothing if not a prankster, and Dancer In The Dark is his greatest prank yet, the first not to leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. His two previous pictures, Breaking The Waves and The Idiots were fascinating but unsatisfactory, the larkish approach clashing awkwardly with the serious aspects of the subject matter, and both enterprises emitting an unmistakeable odour of bullshit. With Dancer In The Dark Von Trier finally abandons all pretense at depicting real issues, and gives himself over to unbridled ludicrousness. The results are astonishing.

Nothing in this film makes sense, and nothing is plausible: but, in contrast with the superficially similar Nurse Betty, these aren’t flaws, they are part of what makes the film such an engagingly different, bold, comic type of experience. In addition, while Von Trier has always shown an assured grasp of cinematic technique, here he breaks through to another level: in terms of innovation, this film stands comparison with both Citizen Kane and A Bout de Souffle, fully justifying the decision of the Cannes jury to award it the Palme d’Or.

So why have so many audiences and critics reacted so violently against it? – Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian appeared under the heading ‘Lars Von Trier’s film is silly, shallow and manipulative,’ and his was by no means the worst review the film has so far received. The plot is undeniably pure melodrama, but so pure it’s clearly a parody: Bjork is Selma, a single mother from Czechoslovakia living in Washington State during the Eisenhower era. She’s rapidly going blind, and, aware that her young son is destined for the same fate, works herself into the ground in a kitchen-sink factory to fund a vital operation for the lad. A series of wild circumstances and nonsensical contrivances ends up with Selma sentenced to hang for the murder of a police officer.

Throughout the film Selma escapes from the unpleasant nature of her reality into a fantasy world based on Hollywood musicals – Von Trier uses a dogme-type documentary shaky-cam for the documentary-style ‘straight’ sequences, and, for the ‘musical’ interludes, switches to 100 fixed, hidden cameras. But while Von Trier employs different approaches to the two sides of the picture, what anti-Dancer critics have crucially failed to grasp is that both parts of the film are equally fantastical. Von Trier claims never to have visited the USA (it’s chronically unwise to take anything he says at face value) and claims this is his version of Kafka’s Amerika, or Frederic Prokosch’s The Asiatics, books about foreign countries written entirely from the imagination. If it makes sense to speak of Dancer as having a theme, it’s that power of imagination – the consolations of artifice, perhaps. The action proper begins with an amateur-dramatics rehearsal of The Sound of Music, and ends on an equally theatrical note, with a pair of curtains closing: nothing is real, there are no consequences. In this respect the film is reminiscent of another freakish work of idiosyncratic, misunderstood genius, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which also has to be approached just so.

To start to pick holes in Dancer is to miss the point entirely. Though the Eisenhower era is as convincingly recreated as 1970s Scotland was in Waves, Von Trier elsewhere deliberately fills his film with absurdities and incongruities, not least in the vital but nonsensical business of the eye operation. Of course it’s absurd that the film makes such a big deal of Selma being Czech, only for Bjork to deploy her idiosyncratic Reykjavik-via-Romsey accent, and of course it’s absurd that Catherine Deneuve plays a menial factory-hand – she’s only in the picture as a nod to her appearances in Jacques Demy’s sixties musicals, just as Joel Grey appears purely to stir memories of Cabaret. While Deneuve looks genuinely bemused (for once) by the shenanigans around her, it’s all Grey can do to keep a straight face – and the same applies to fellow cameo-players Stellan Skarsgard and Udo Kier, the latter a veteran of many similarly daft enterprises.

But what of Bjork? She’s just about the only person involved with Dancer who doesn’t seem in on the gag. This is, on one level, worrying – could she really have believed this was a ‘serious’ tragedy? – but one another level, it makes perfect sense. I think Von Trier deliberately set out to depict extreme ‘tragic’ events while managing to evoke zero sympathy from the audience – and the more extreme Bjork’s “performance” is, the greater his triumph. He doesn’t give a damn about Selma, and nor are we meant to, either. This isn’t any criticism of Bjork – and it is unfair how she’s been singled out for critical ire by commentators who myopically confuse the actress with the character she’s playing.

This is a collaboration between Von Trier and his star: for once, this most egotistical of directors (he’s the only film-maker whose name in the opening titles is always in bigger letters than that of the film itself) has come up against a rival creative talent, and it’s perhaps Bjork’s uncompromising boldness which feeds into the musical sequences and drives Von Trier to new heights: they are just like her pop videos, so that during the musical sections Selma becomes Bjork, the character’s awkwardness and shyness fall away, and the ‘dancer in the dark’ takes over.

The interludes are spectacular, bravura celebrations of the power of the cinematic image: Von Trier’s multi-camera approach is a striking idea, but the genius lies in the way he’s edited together (in synch with Bjork’s music) the thousands of brief, candid, unplanned shots they’ve captured. The digital cameras have no real depth of field – the image is uniformly flat, colours are a little saturated, there’s a very slight loss of definition – which makes it all the more startling when the dancers pass very close to the lens. It’s like the image on a security surveillance screen, or from a camera in an electrical shop window trained on the passers-by in the street beyond, feeding the images into a TV set so you can watch yourself stride past. The results are as close to the human eye as I’ve ever seen on a movie screen, and there are moments (the second musical interlude, involving itinerant workers on a train in particular) where Dancer In The Dark feels like some mythical ultimate movie, a quantum leap beyond what anyone has ever managed before.

I fear I’m not describing the impact of this film very well, and perhaps I’m not making a convincing case for its greatness, but this may be because Dancer In The Dark is very difficult to understand or describe using the standard vocabulary of critical analysis: this is cinema at the extreme, and some of its effects are subjective, mysterious. Though the film hinges on blindness, it’s really about a way of looking at the world – Von Trier’s way, and he creates a vivid universe on its own terms. If those terms are occasionally absurd, then they’re never less than 100% cinematic, which is something that can hardly be said of most releases in this or any other year. You may not like what Von Trier sees, or how he conveys it, but only those with a very narrow view of cinema could possibly fail to marvel at such a spectacular display of sheer, bloody nerve.

by Neil Young
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