DANCER IN THE DARK(director/writer/cinematographer: Lars von Trier; cinematographer: Robby Mueller; editors: François Gédigier/Molly Marlene Stensgaard; cast: Bjork (Selma Jezkova), Catherine Deneuve (Kathy), Joel Grey (Oldrich Novy), Zeljko Ivanek (D.A.), Udo Kier (Doctor), Vladica Kostic (Gene), David Morse (Bill), Vincent Paterson (Samuel), Cara Seymour (Linda), Stellan Skaarsgard (Doctor), Peter Stomare (Jeff), Jean-Marc Barr (Norman); Runtime: 140; Fine Line Features; 2000)
“They speak English, but the film doesn’t feel American.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves/The Idiots) is one of the Danish founders of Dogme ’95, that gimmicky method of filming only with certain sparse cinematic rules. This film is shot in drab digital video and with a hand-held camera. Trier has the flair for showbiz promoting, and has created a film that pulls every string in the book Hollywood wrote about making romantic musical tearjerkers; but, without a Jacques Demy love for the Hollywood musical. Demy revitalized the Hollywood musical with his brilliant “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” This film is a captivating ‘love it or hate it’ musical melodrama, one that should divide its audience to either end of the pole, that unfairly pulls cards out of its sleeve to make sure its case against the death penalty can’t lose. It tries to show America as a country of harsh laws and questionable values, where its capitalistic system forces people to make bad decisions about what is important in life. If there’s any explanation for why the director used this flat Eastern European looking musical to make his case against capitalism, it could probably be explained that von Trier’s parents were communists and he was raised to think that the Hollywood musical was a result of bourgeois decadence. The ‘von’ part of his name was not given but added for snobbish reasons.
The story’s heroine is played by Icelandic pop singer-composer Bjork, who won the Best Actress prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival, playing her part with childlike simplicity and unbelievable dumbness. The film won the prestigious Palme d’Or for Best Picture. Praise from abroad has been far greater than the less than warm reaction from the American public and most film critics in the States.
It is a film about a single mother named Selma (Bjork) with a 12-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic), who emigrates to America from communist Czechoslovakia and Selma ends up working at a tool-and-die factory, adding to her income by placing hairpins to cards at home for less than a penny per card. Selma saves every cent in a tin can she keeps in a bureau drawer, for an operation to save her son’s sight. Selma came to America because only the doctors here can perform such an operation and only here can she make enough money to pay the hefty doctor bill. Both she and her son suffer from the same hereditary eye ailment, whereby if they don’t receive the operation they will go blind. Selma cannot save up enough for both operations and therefore sacrifices herself for her son’s sake, but never tells her son or anyone else about her going blind or how serious his condition is. Selma’s salvation and only happiness is her love of Hollywood musicals — as she lives in them in her mind. Selma also acts in an amateur theater group, where she has the lead part of Maria in the musical The Sound of Music. Selma is accompanied by her factory friend Kathy (Deneuve), who sees for herself the trouble she has with her eyesight and tries to help her in the workplace. They are together watching old-time Hollywood musicals at a local theater. Because Selma can hardly see the screen Kathy must explain what is happening, which causes a disturbance for a man who is seated in front of them the both times they are in the movie house and he reacts each time to their talking in an irritated way. That scene was contrived, throwing it in the viewer’s face that everything is shamelessly rigged and there’s nothing you can do about it. I got the feeling that if you don’t accept von Trier’s world-socialist view of things, you are made to feel like you are on the wrong side.
The film is set in 1964 in the state of Washington, in an outlying area of the state, where Selma (Bjork) and her son rent a trailer on the property of the local policeman Bill (Morse) and his wife Linda (Cara). The couple seem outwardly friendly to their tenant, offering Selma candy and giving a bike to Gene so that he can get to school.
One day the troubled landlord tells Selma a secret that he’s about to lose his house because he can’t make the payments; this is something his spendthrift wife is unaware of, thinking he has a lot of money from an inheritance. Selma trades secrets with him and tells him about her impending blindness and when Bill asks her for a loan soon after they traded secrets and she said she couldn’t, Bill finds where she hid the money and steals it. Her grief gets piled on as she gets fired from her factory job and gives up her role in the play because of her poor eyesight — a condition Selma stubbornly continues to deny to everyone so as to keep the truth from her son. Selma even rejects the friendly romantic overtures from a good-hearted local worker Jeff (Stomare), who is constantly offering her a ride home.
When Selma goes to get her stolen money back she encounters a hostile Linda, who says Bill told her about the sexual advances she made toward him. When Selma faces Bill he pulls a gun and pretends that he couldn’t commit suicide, and tells her if she wants the money she better kill him. After he pulls a gun on her, there’s a struggle and he’s shot. When Bill asks her to kill him, she is at first reluctant but then complies inflicting 34 wounds in all — first with the gun and then with the money box slammed into his skull when she runs out of bullets.
Selma’s arrested for murder and after a speedy trial in which her incompetent court-appointed lawyer does not mention what really went on, she’s sentenced to death by hanging. She won’t agree to an appeal because the new competent lawyer would have to be paid with the money saved for Gene’s operation.
Then the most startling thing about this so far very manipulative and dull story takes place, flighty song and dance numbers break out among the characters as fantasy and reality get intermeshed and original songs written and performed by Bjork and inventively choreographed by Vincent Paterson are acted out; some numbers take place in the factory, the rehearsal hall, a railroad bridge and in the courtroom. Even the already murdered Bill comes back to life to be part of the song and dance routines. These numbers were hardly memorable, but they were attention getting since they didn’t fit the action and had a bizarre look. What they all had was a verve, like something important was happening, rather than the songs and dances being good music. Yet there was something about this break in the story line that interrupted the boredom of the story and gave the film renewed life. It was the only time the film wasn’t dried out by the manipulative story and seemed like a true cinematic fantasy experience. It was the only thing in the film that seemed to be innovative and chancy as for once the director stopped exploiting the poor dumb woman for a brief respite, before carrying on with making her into a martyr. Trier did that in the film’s final scene where he exploits her suffering for one more time as he shows her scared of dying, comforted only by a sympathetic prison guard who leads her gently to the execution rope; we needlessly see the entire horrific hanging.
I don’t think the director made his point that well against the death sentence by making the trial and her death such a blatant mockery of justice. All those scenes were obviously phony, a set-up for the director to force his beliefs down the viewer’s throats. Everything about this film was unreal and embedded with such an effete snobbishness to show only its view was the right one. It seems as if von Trier is, as always, the ego-driven publicist and never the artist first; and, he is always seeking to gain attention for his views about society, without giving me the sense that he really cares about what he is railing against. I never for one moment in this film thought he cared about Selma’s suffering, her blindness, or that he viewed any of the workers with a real understanding. Trier’s point of how economic conditions makes one a murderer seemed too simple a generalization to take seriously. It also seems to me that he used the hanging only because without it he couldn’t finish the job he had of exploiting her suffering to the extreme. Billy Wilder in his “Double Indemnity” didn’t have to use the electric chair to get across his point about the inequality of the justice system, neither was it used by Tay Garnett in his superior 1946 “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Both films in their earnest telling of their story make a better argument than von Trier does against capital punishment, even though he uses every heart-tugging trick there is to make his case. Trier does this because what he really believes, is that he must shock an audience in order for his film to work–he doesn’t seem to be able to operate in any other way. The best I can say for von Trier was that as trying as it was to watch and as difficult as it was not to feel exploited, his film had an interesting quality. That despite the dullness and my resentment at his methods, I was still enthralled.
They speak English, but the film doesn’t feel American. It has the static energy of a film made in communist Czechoslovakia. Von Trier has never been to America and most of the actors in this film are foreigners and the story is not a very believable presentation of America and how its judicial system works, unless you want to take extreme cases as the rule. For von Trier an extreme case gives him just what he is looking for, not a chance to search for the truth but a chance to make a splash. With this film he is the one dancing in the darkness, but brazen enough to give one the impression that he is re-inventing cinema. I take him for a charming huckster. This is the most exploitative and least daring film he has made to date. It is not daring to be against the death penalty with the evidence he stacked up against it. The only risk he took is that he would torture the viewer to death by all his contrivances and the brutally slow-pace of the film, and by the song lyrics being so empty a gesture to Hollywood. The only other risk he takes, is not making the ‘big bucks’ he envisioned by bringing his act to America.
REVIEWED ON 11/8/2000 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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