In honor of last week's closing ceremony of the 60th Cannes Festival (give or take), in which the 52nd Palme d'Or was awarded to the Romanian 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, I have taken it upon myself to consider a previous winner of that most august prize.
My first observation about Dancer in the Dark is an extremely shallow one: here at last is a Lars von Trier film that doesn't fill me with blind rage. It is not pleasing to watch, by any conceivable definition of that word, and there are very nearly as many things it does wrong as right; but unlike the director's other films that I have seen (Breaking the Waves and Dogville), I didn't turn off the television at the end with the feeling that someone had been pissing in my ear for two and a half hours. This despite Dancer in the Dark sharing essentially all of their flaws: it's overly deterministic, it's much too long, and on paper, it's witheringly misogynistic.
Indeed, Dancer is the third film in a loose trilogy that began with Breaking the Waves (The Idiots lies in the middle), centered on the presence of tragically innocent female protagonists who are willing, if not anxious, to suffer miserably for no reason at all. In this particular entry, that protagonist is Selma, a Czech immigrant to Washington state in 1964, working in a factory that produces what appear to be stainless steel kitchen sinks. Selma has congenitally weak eyesight, and as the movie begins she is practically blind; her only drive in life is to raise the money to pay for an operation for her son, that must be performed before his 13th birthday, to protect his vision from a similar fate.
All well and fine, and only a little bit depressing, but it takes a turn for the extremely von Trierian right around the midway point: Selma's cache of money is stolen, she sort of accidentally kills the man who did it, and she goes to jail. From this point, it's a fairly inevitable road to the gallows, marked at every moment by wonderful opportunities for Our Heroine to save herself, if only she would be willing to open up her mouth instead of suffering like an early Christian martyr in silent mortification.
For whatever reason, this blatant humiliation of suffering femininity didn't bother me as much here as when Emily Watson did the same thing four years earlier, and I'm pretty sure that the reason can be summed up in one hard-to-pronounce Icelandic word: Björk. For Selma is played by that very same elfin chanteuse, in her first post-fame film role, and not only does she perform the character as brilliantly as that character could imaginably be performed, her mere presence smooths out the most troubling excesses of her director's hatred for the good and sweet in life.
Some people just are otherworldly. I've mentioned before how Shelley Duvall meets that definition, and I'm about to prove that Björk does the same:
Now that I've proved it, I would like to argue that this has a very specific effect on Dancer in the Dark. You see, Björk is so...incredibly...ethereal...that it's a little easier to believe when she does incredibly strange things. "She could save her life by admitting that the man who stole her money was bankrupt, but won't? I guess that's just how they do things on her planet." You know, that sort of easier.
I know that's a little bit mean to both Björk and the movie, so let me rephrase this a bit: I think that the actress is sufficiently uncanny in both look and voice that any character she plays is therefore a bit alien and removed from the commoner types of humanity. Putting Björk in a movie makes that movie a sort of fairy tale, no matter what else you do, and we're so much more lenient of insensate behavior in fairy tales.
This doesn't mean that I'm willing to forgive von Trier the hatred radiating out of the film (hatred that is more intense than in Breaking the Waves and significantly less intense than in the bilious Dogville; make of that what you will), because I'm not sure that this phenomenon was deliberate. In the years since this film was released, Catherine Deneuve, who co-starred as Kathy, Selma's only friend, has revealed that the relationship between Björk and her director was contentious, and that it made the entire set a fairly stressful place to work. Von Trier himself has indicated that his star would spit at him every morning, although this seems to be the sort of apocryphal fantasy that he likes to suggest about most of his films. At any rate, there's no good reason to assume that the actress cared very much about making the movie that the director was aiming for.
That movie was a classically auteurist exercise in audience suffering and alienation. Dancer in the Dark is much less showy in this than Dogville, with its chalk-outline stage, but it engages in a similar vein of experimentation with the limits of cinematic form. To begin with, there is the melodramatic story that would have seemed trite by the end of the silent era; von Trier's goal here, I suppose, is to keep the audience off-balance, unable to watch the film as "just a story." In fact, the point of Dancer in the Dark, as much as anything, seems to be an attack on the notion of cinema itself (which, again, which reach a fuller and more abusive expression in Dogville).
Selma, we learn quickly, adores Hollywood musicals, and only her daydreams about musicals keep her sane through her harsh life. For a surprisingly long time, this is left inside the character's head - maybe excepting the opening scene, in which she and her community theater group rehearse The Sound of Music - until the 40-minute mark, when we start to hear the sound of factory equipment turn into a bassline, the bleached-out colors of the film begin to saturate, and we are treated to the film's first musical number, an elaborate little show captured by an alleged 100 digital cameras.
Of course, Selma is also half-blind, so much that when they go to the movies to watch 42nd Street, Kathy must narrate for her. Later on, during another musical number, Selma will haughtily profess that she has already seen enough in life, and needs to see no more.
Even the father of the pointlessly ascetic Dogme 95 movement mst acknowledge that film is classically a visual art, and here we have a film whose protagonist disparages the visual, and experiences garish daydreams that are primarily visual, and are complete lies. This last point matters: Selma expresses, multiple times, what makes musicals so great, and she brings up the expected fantasy and romance and happy endings tropes. Meanwhile, she is stuck in a musical that is deliberately ugly for 90% of its running time, and has a profoundly nihilistic ending. Selma is an idiot, in other words. Like musicals is the province of idiots. Imagining pretty, cinematic things is for idiots.
This is a taste of why I do not like von Trier.
So let us all thank the movie gods for Björk, who emphatically does not play an idiot, whose songs bring life and vitality to the film, whose performance is brilliant on all levels. If we love Selma, and we do, it is because the acting and not the writing turn her into a fragile but emotionally complete person that deserves our love.
Update, immediately upon posting: Everything that I said stands, but I think I was a bit harsher than I'd wanted to be. After it's own fashion, this is a great film, something not true of any other Lars von Trier project, insofar as any work that bothers me in the way that Dancer in the Dark bothers me is necessarily successful.