Dancer in the Dark
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
When an oppressively bleak movie holds its sway over a certain
group--the youngish generation emerging from Dancer in the Dark
with its cool largely wrecked in a hot flush--it becomes important
to ask whether the film is striking a common chord or merely striking
out. Is this the popular rebirth of some kind of Cannes-approved
solidarity with unjustly doomed mothers working in metal factories?
Have years of Madonna videos orbiting in heavy rotation finally
made the globe safe again for the rogue musical?
I think the appeal is something deeper and less-examined: a bliss-out
in reverse. Call it
a grief-out. Whatever it is, it's cathartic enough to numb viewers
into submission; Dancer all but gets away with snaring its
poor heroine like a dumb animal in a pit, without us noticing the
cunning design of the trap. Maybe it's because we're down there with
Björk and Catherine Deneuve
look quite fetching in factory chic.
I've talked to people who wanted to resist this picture, a cynical
riff on Hollywood fantasia that quickly plunges its overworked daydreamer
into tragedy; the fact that they can't, or have even come to appreciate
such a flogging, may be the ultimate triumph for Lars von Trier,
who you might imagine on the set dressed in jodhpurs directing with
a whip. He added that "von" to his name sometime between leaving
home and enfant-terrible-ing his way out of film school,
and it snugly suits the author of multiple manifestos on the state
of his art--most publicly the Dogme 95 "Vow of Chastity," which
basically rejected one kind of manipulative filmcraft for another.
These days his chosen toys are melodrama, digital video and pop-electronica.
If all this sounds cutting-edge, it's because it draws easy blood;
von Trier goes for that old-time movie religion and scores with
it, because it still stings after all these years. Let's all welcome
the revival of misery cinema.
To pull this off requires a miracle (or at least a leap of faith)
and von Trier has one in Bjšrk, already famous for being the feistiest
person from Iceland. A vocalist of almost distracting exuberance,
Bjšrk is very "now" and her part preserves that, strategically:
She's one hip Czech immigrant living in Washington State circa 1964,
with her stretched-out sweater and zippy messenger bag. (Art students
take note: This film is after you.) Those thick horn-rimmed glasses
aren't just an affectation, however: Selma, her character, is going
blind and, what's worse, she operates heavy machinery. This is the
kind of conception that draws plenty of sympathetic "aws" as well
as cringes--von Trier having his fun with shots of her careless
hands lingering under hydraulic presses.