Dancer in the Dark (2000) [Review Re-View]
Originally released October 6, 2000:
Lars von Trier’s latest shaky video opus is likely the most unique movie going experience you’ll have all year. Dancer in the Dark is a clever, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful tale of sorrow and redemption. Dancer stars Iceland’s version of Madonna in the elfin Bjork. She plays Selma, quite possibly the nicest but also most stubborn person in the world. She’s an immigrant in 1960s America working long and odd hours to ensure that she can raise enough money for her son. You see Selma is slowly going blind but continuing to work so she can make sure her son will not have to suffer the same inherited illness. So she works late on heavy industrial machinery causing accidents as her condition worsens all to stop her son’s genetic curse she will give to him. Selma’s escape has always been musicals. In life she hears music in unusual places and visualizes life stopping to burst out into a vibrant fully choreographed musical number. Selma’s life continues to degenerate along with her vision as events pile on worse and worse until they all come crashing together.
Dancer in the Dark is no picnic in the park. The movie is haunting but incredibly depressing. Lars von Trier’s previous film (Breaking the Waves) was another wrenching drama with good people going through rough times with no fraction of light at any end of a tunnel. His jerky handheld video work is back capturing the life of Selma and seemingly framing it in a more realistic sense. The video images are edited to look like a documentary and the whole feel is one of raw power. You aren’t merely watching a film, it’s like you are in it witnessing the actions from the sidelines. The escapist musical numbers are shot in glorious still film to contrast the drab realism of video. The colors are bright, the faces are happy, and the cinematography is a wonder to envision.
Bjork soars and delivers what should be an Oscar-caliber performance. I never knew the queen of alt-rock had such emotive powers. Selma’s innocence is keenly expressed in Bjork and her glassy eyes. Her love for her son is no more evident then all the suffering and tragedy she goes through. All of the suffering and tragedy could be avoided – except her son would not be helped.
The ensemble around Bjork work fantastic magic as well. Peter Stormare is a sad figure trying to just get a glimpse of Selma’s attention. David Morse is a down-and-out policeman who is Selma’s landlord and in need of some cash. He’s afraid to tell his bourgeois wife they’ve run empty with money. Catherine Deneuve turns in the brightest supporting performance as Selma’s co-worker and friend Kathy. She’s torn between trying to stop Selma from continuing on her acts that could cause her harm and helping her along her determination. A great scene as example of her care for Selma is when the two of them are in a theater watching an old Hollywood musical. At this point Selma is completely blind and can’t see what’s going on, so Kathy takes Selma’s palm and dances her fingers in correlation with the actions on screen to Selma’s delight. A simple scene yet so elegant and beautiful.
Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful piece of original film making that gives us the escape of hope and the crush of despair. Selma’s love of musicals and their role in life is perfect symbolism for discussion. Dancer will leave you with a distinct feeling by the end credits. Whether it’s sorrow or bewilderment Dancer in the Dark is a film not to miss.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I knew going back to my first Lars von Trier film was not going to be a pleasant experience, and oh what an understatement that turned out to be. von Trier has compared himself to a Nazi, his intense methods have driven his actors to the brink, including Dancer in the Dark’s Bjork who swore off the entire profession of acting after her experiences working with him. I am not surprised by this response because his movies have famously followed a formula of a woman being tortured by men, by society, by forces outsider her control, and then she suffers for two hours and dies, a victim of the cruelty of the universe. Repeat. It’s a formula that I’ve since grown weary of and after 2018’s The House That Jack Built I contemplated not watching another von Trier movie again. He just can’t help himself and his nihilistic, heavy-handed impulses handicap his genuine artistic abilities and the merits of his storytelling. Back in 2000, it all felt relatively new. von Trier was the biggest name of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish collective of filmmakers who swore to adhere to digital video and other aesthetic rules to better replicate reality as it was, ripping away the glossy artifice of Hollywood fantasy. von Trier was subversive, provocative, and exciting, and since then I’ve broken free from the von Trier spell. I was questioning whether I would share Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark with my girlfriend, who had seen neither, and in hindsight I’m glad I picked Requiem instead (think about that, yikes).
Dancer in the Dark is a powerful experience and one that is unfortunately smothered by von Trier’s heavy hand. It’s easy to root for Selma (Bjork), a Czech transplant in small-town 1960s America (the movie was filmed in Sweden because von Trier is afraid to fly). She already has so much going against her: 1) she’s a woman, 2) she’s an immigrant, 3) she’s poor, 4) she’s suffering from a degenerative disease that will rob her of her sight. Even worse, her son will suffer the same fate unless Selma raises enough money for an operation. She takes on extra work at her factory, even if she’s not exactly qualified, and she’s a hopeful yet stubborn woman who says what she means, earning friends who will champion her. She’s also a lover of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, as they presented an escape to her as a little girl growing up in poverty. America was the land of opportunity, where everyone dances all the time, sings their hearts out, and gets the girl or the guy by the conclusion of the finale. That dichotomy, between reality and fantasy, and all the cultural and psychological commentary within, is the strongest aspect of the film and a peak of ambition that von Trier never really got close to again with his later punishing dramaturgy. The first musical number doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the movie, and by that time we have had our heroine, her plight, and the first markers of a looming tragedy efficiently established.
Jeff (Peter Stormare), a lovesick co-worker who shows up every day to maybe drive Selma home, cannot understand musicals, saying people just burst out into song and how unrealistic this is, and Selma agrees, but for her it’s wonderful. She hears music in the world around her and it gives her life, especially as her vision deteriorates. As injustice after injustice falls upon her, Selma uses extravagant musicals as an escape, where everyone is a friend waiting to jump into the number and work together. A common refrain she sings is “there’s always someone to catch me,” referencing the choreography of musicals where the dancers frolic together but it’s also her request to the universe for a little help, for someone to catch her when she stumbles and provide that level support a woman of her means and background lacked in this landscape. The musical numbers staged by von Trier have a chaotic energy to them, assembled from dozens and dozens of sporadically placed cameras. They feel like a burst of imagination while keeping an improvisational feel; less drilled than managed. The first musical number “Cvalda” is a delirious daydream where Selma imagines the various sounds of the work machines creating a percussive symphony and she’s a Mary Poppins conductor. After Bill (David Morse) dies, she retreats to “Scatterheart” to make sense of her actions, with her son telling her she only did what she had to do and Bill rising from the dead to beg her forgiveness. When she’s in solitary confinement and can’t hear any sound, Selma goes into despair. She shouts the lyrics to selections from The Sound of Music to bring music back into her isolated world. Even on her march to execution, Selma copes by turning the “107 Steps” to the noose into a song. Her last words are her singing her final goodbyes to her off-screen son, so until the end musicals were how this woman chose to compensate for the rotten luck of her life. And oh boy was it ever rotten.
There’s one scene in the second half begging for symbolic unpacking where Selma is in the middle of her trial and the prosecution calls a famous Czech film actor and dancer to the stage. It’s none other than Oscar-winning theater legend Joel Grey (Cabaret) and his character doesn’t know who Selma is, even though she told the court she had been sending money to him (she listed her son’s account for his operation under a pseudonym to not risk it being derailed). This famous actor starred in movies in her native Czechoslovakia and crossed over to American cinema. He was an idol for young Selma and another figure to encapsulate the promise of America. Then as he’s testifying on the stand is when Selma drifts back into another rendition of “In the Musicals” and Grey joins her in tapping, and he confesses, “I didn’t mind it at all / That you were having a ball / at my musicals / And I was always there to catch you.” He understands and empathizes. This scene alone is just packed with so many layers of metaphor and projection and symbolic subtext and commentary and you could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on its myriad meanings. At its best, that’s Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier is using the language of musicals to subvert their form, to lay commentary on the un-reality is a rejection of the cruelty of real life, of finding order in disorder, finding community amid a nest of selfish vipers competing for dominance. It’s when von Trier uses our understanding of musicals to really make us think about the associations and contradictions that makes this movie a stirring and sometimes sensational experience.
Alas, the artistry is seriously wounded by von Trier’s heavy-handed approach to all drama. This has become even more pronounced after where von Trier has obliterated the entire world (2011’s Melancholia) and ruined a four-hour movie with a last-second dumb joke of an ending (2014’s two-part Nymphomaniac). Subtlety is not one of the tools von Trier prefers to dabble with. It’s a shame because he’s a natural storyteller when it comes to establishing vulnerable characters in fraught scenarios and slowly raising the temperature, organically transforming allies into enemies and friends into abusers. This is done very well in 2004’s Dogville as well, a movie I would argue both plays into and succeeds his tortured-woman formula of drama and political allegory. I would say Dogville is his second-best film precisely because I was expecting another unrelentingly unjust ending for another anguished woman. However, where a lighter touch could accomplish his points, von Trier instead brings out a bazooka. Selma’s deadly encounter with Bill happens at the halfway point in the film. From there there’s still another 65 minutes of her suffering to drag out to preposterous proportions. We go through the trial, her cross-examination, her willfully keeping secrets that will only make her look guilty to maintain a promise to a dead man, and then there’s her visitations in jail, her appeal, her rejection of her appeal because the costs will empty the fund’s for her son’s operation, the realization of her impending execution, the march to the execution, her being bound to a board because she cannot stand straight because she’s so scared, her rejection of the hood, her last song while she waits for the governor’s call, and then her abrupt death. There were several points where I was just pleading, “Enough already,” because it was so thoroughly exhausting.
Selma is served to be a martyr of an unjust system that looked suspiciously on immigrants, and Selma elects to accept her fate because anything less would endanger losing what she has set up for her son’s well-being. This woman takes all this punishment and that’s the story, America. That’s the story of America, America. That’s what von Trier is getting at, but the 140-minute movie is so overdone and so drawn out to obsess over the wrongs inflicted on this poor woman that it unintentionally blunts the message. The second half becomes a passion play where we watch our poor Selma elect to accept tragedy and self-sacrifice and endure all the injustices. It’s harrowing and upsetting but would still be so if we didn’t spend half of the movie dwelling on a litany of examples of her fated misery. I’m sure others will argue the crushing nature of the injustice is meant to convey for the viewer the feeling of aggravation and outrage. I would agree that outrage is sought, but when von Trier doesn’t let up, it tilts into overwrought self-parody.
Dancer in the Dark resonates as strongly as it does because Bjork gives every ounce of herself in this performance. She was originally just going to write songs but von Trier chased her for a year to convince her to also star as the lead. There are moments of awkwardness where it feels like maybe she’s confused in the scene with what her lines are supposed to be, but then her lack of polish is revealed for its true strength. It’s a deeply, deeply felt performance, stunning in how raw and empathetic she gets, subsuming herself into the character and her tribulations. You don’t see the craft so much here as you do sheer, undiluted passion and ferocious naturalism. She doesn’t hold anything back and gives the best performance in any von Trier movie. In my mind, she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year but this was not the case; she was only nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen It All”) where she wore her famous swan dress that became a go-to punchline. She was, and continues to be, an eclectic artist and a really weird person, but man could she be a tremendous actress given the right circumstances. It’s a shame that von Trier’s sadistic directing style lead her to quit the entire profession.
Looking back on my original review, I remember seeing Dancer in the Dark with my freshman pal Kat Lewis, who was just the biggest Bjork fan you could find in all of Ohio in 2000. We were both floored by the movie, and Bjork, and cited it as uniformly brilliant. With twenty years of distance, I can say some of the ironic commentary of undercutting musical escapism feels too easy now, seeking credit for daring to ask, “Hey, what if musicals weren’t so happy, huh?” It’s still a worthwhile subversion to explore but simply presenting it as a subversion isn’t enough for a satisfying thematic focus. It’s funny that the moments that stood out to me as an 18-year-old, like Catherine Deneuve dancing her fingers on Selma’s palm to communicate the onscreen dance routine she can no longer see, are the same ones that stood out to me as a 38-year-old. Good writing will still make itself known and felt. There’s plenty to admire and, paradoxically, enjoy about such a depressing movie, but von Trier’s inability to self-edit and hold back his condemnation of humanity is what truly oppresses his movie.
Re-View Grade: B
Posted on October 27, 2020, in 2000 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged catherine deneuve, david morse, doomed romance, drama, emily watson, fantasy, indie, lars von trier, musical, oscars, period film, peter stormare, stellen skarsgard. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
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