To do justice to Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" is a daunting task. It's so dense and rich, so inconsistent - brilliant in some places and deeply unsatisfying in others -- that just getting my thoughts into a manageable post has proved quite a trial.
Lars Von Trier is, all by himself, a complex subject. A self-described provocateur, he was raised by Communist/nudist/atheists (you read that right) but converted to Catholicism as an adult. His films are typically stuffed with controversial ideas, often including a strident antipathy towards all things American. His frequently female protagonists suffer miserable and terrible fates, to the point that he is considered misogynistic, perhaps even a bit sadistic. But at the same time, he's original and daring, and his films give audiences plenty of intellectually and emotionally challenging fodder to chew on.
"Dancer in the Dark" has a little bit of everything for which Von Trier has come to be both revered and reviled. I doubt anyone comes away from it feeling lukewarm.
It begins with a three-minute prologue in which a screen filled with continually morphing abstract images is accompanied by soaring orchestral music. We wait for the images to morph into something real and identifiable - flowers, or a mountain range perhaps. But they never become anything recognizable. This beginning may seem odd, but it soon proves to be a fitting commencement.
To start a film with an overture is to impart it with it a heightened sense of importance, even grandeur. Such a sense of occasion was characteristic of big-budget film adaptations of Broadway musicals in the 1960s ("West Side Story," "My Fair Lady," "The Sound of Music" and so on) where the overture was played over the opening credits. And "Dancer in the Dark" is, indeed, set in the 1960s with a central character who is obsessed with musical films.
Then too, these images that threaten to become recognizable objects - but never do - simulate for us the experience of striving to see something, but being unable to. And this allows us, however briefly, to experience the point of view of "Dancer's heroine, Selma Jezkova, a woman who is quickly going blind and struggling to prevent her young son from experiencing the same plight.
From the overture,we are taken to "Washington State, 1964" and a rehearsal of what looks to be a particularly bad amateur production of "The Sound of Music." Selma (Bjork) is happily singing "My Favorite Things" as her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) hands her, from the wings, the actual items she sings about (bright copper kettle, warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with string and so on.) It's awkward and silly, as we can see from Kathy's exasperated expressions, but Selma remains joyful throughout, even adding an impromptu tap step as a closing flourish. Thus the nature of the relationship between the two women - Kathy as the long-suffering, but nurturing, pragmatist and Selma as the childlike dreamer in need of guidance - is established at the outset.
You may also notice that Selma sports an ungainly pair of heavy, thick, black-rimmed glasses, and in the ensuing scene, she's shown in the ladies' room at her optometrist's office, reading and quickly memorizing the letters written on a sheet of paper that she holds close to her face. She's clearly cramming to fake her way through a vision test, and in the next scene, she convincingly passes that test and convinces her doctor that it's safe for her to continue her factory job.
Selma spends days working alongside Kathy at a foundry where she runs a heavy, potentially dangerous machine that stamps sheets of metal into basins. At nights, in the small trailer she shares with 12-year-old son Gene (Vladica Kostic), she assembles packages of hairpins in order to make extra money.
Childlike and bubbly. Selma seems to invoke the protective indulgence of everyone around her. The "Sound of Music" director privately tells others that she "sings funny and can't really dance," but dotes on her during rehearsals. Her factory foreman (Jean Marc Barr) scolds her gently but cheerfully about bringing her script to work and practicing her dance steps on company time. A would-be suitor, Jeff (Peter Stormare), waits loyally for her in his pick-up truck everyday at quitting time, although she brushes off his offers of a ride and tells him she has no time for a boyfriend.
And she unabashedly loves musicals, freely admitting that when times are bad, she escapes into them to feel better. Kathy accompanies her to the local cinema, where they watch '30s classics like "42nd Street" and "Gold Diggers of 1933," with Kathy narrating or even recreating dance steps with her fingertips on Selma's palm when Selma can't clearly see the screen. But Selma's musical obsession goes beyond the films themselves. She hears musical rhythms in all the sounds around her - is perhaps, though it isn't clearly suggested, even more sensitive to these rhythms as a result of losing her sense of sight. In the clack-clatter-bang of factory machines, the rumble of a train on the tracks, even the banging of a chain on a flagpole, Selma hears music, and out of that music, she creates full-blown production numbers in her head, numbers which we get to see as well. Those imagined production numbers will turn out to be both her salvation and her downfall.
Apart from Kathy, Selma's most significant friendship proves to be with Bill Houston (David Morse), the man on whose property her trailer is parked. Bill and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour) watch Gene when Selma is at work, and invite her and Gene over to listen to music and eat fancy, foil-wrapped chocolates in the evenings while they help with the hairpins. "Bill gives me a lot of money," Linda brags, and Selma feigns being impressed because she believes this makes Bill happy. The Houstons even buy Gene a bicycle for his birthday, a gift Selma can't provide because, as she tells them all, "I'm not that kind of mum." (i.e. one with money).
The scenes between Selma and Bill are pivotal moments in "Dancer in the Dark," each instrumental in propelling Selma towards a tragic fate. In the first, Bill stops by the trailer one night to share a secret with Selma: he's broke. His once huge inheritance is gone and he's terrified to tell Linda there's no more money for the nice things she's become accustomed to. Selma trustfully shares her own secret in return : she's going blind due to a genetic defect which has been passed on to her son. He'll begin going blind soon, too, unless he has an operation - in fact, she emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the U.S. solely to get him that operation, and she's saved $2026.10 to pay for it, nearly but not quite enough. Then the two talk happily about their mutual love of musicals. It's a warm scene and it feels as though a bond has been forged between the two friends, but in reality, Selma's been set up for disaster. And we get our first sense of that at the end of the scene when the camera pans from Bill leaving Selma's trailer to Linda watching anxiously from the window of their house. If you've seen any other of Von Trier's films, you will rightly suspect that all hell is about to break loose.
With Selma's eyesight rapidly fading, she's forced to scramble for the last of the money needed for Gene's operation. She volunteers for an extra, nighttime shift at the factory, and when she arrives, asking the forewoman, "Is it always so dark in here?" we know her time is running out. While lost in one of her musical fantasies, Selma jams her machine badly, stopping production and barely escaping injury herself. When she gets home that night, Bill carries a sleeping Gene from his house to the trailer, and starts to tell her that he plans to confess his situation to Linda. But he stops momentarily to watch Selma pour herself a glass of water and use her finger to judge the water level in the glass while staring straight ahead. Realizing that Selma is now blind, he pretends to leave by shutting the trailer door, then stands perfectly still and watches intently as Selma puts some cash into a candy tin she's hidden behind a fold-down ironing board. Her entire savings are in that candy tin, and we have no doubt that Bill is going to take them as soon as she leaves the room. I've only ever seen Morse play decent, earnest, good-guy characters, and to this point, Bill has appeared to be just one more of those good guys. The way Morse subtly plays this sudden shift from good guy to venal thief is electrifying.
A unstoppable chain of events has been launched. Selma is fired from her factory job, and upon returning home discovers the theft of her money. She confronts Bill at his desk where he has her cash laid out before him. Selma almost gets away with her money, but Bill pulls a gun on her, and the scene rapidly deteriorates from there.
Honestly, I've seen "Dancer in the Dark" four times now (three times in just the last two weeks), and this scene - which ought to have a harrowing, life-and-death urgency - gets more laughable and ridiculous every time I watch it. What goes wrong exactly? Maybe it's that Bill doesn't make any real effort to hold onto the money until Selma's almost out the door with it. Maybe it's that, even after Bill informs her he's pulled a gun, Selma dilly-dallies around instead of taking the money and running. Maybe it's that once Bill gives her the gun to kill him, she puts as many holes in his carpet as she puts in him (she's blind, after all.) Maybe it's that Morse never once convinces me that Bill is in any real pain or that he has enough of a grip on the bag of money that Selma couldn't easily wrest it from him without resorting to more violence. Or maybe it's the loony way Seymour pops in and out the scene, without registering any plausible fear or concern, delivering her lines as she's just arrived from another movie altogether - one directed by Ed Wood. Probably it's all of that. But the scene doesn't work, and I blame Von Trier. He's got at least two really fine actors in that scene, and if they couldn't make the characters' actions plausible, then the scene should have been rewritten or reworked. Anyway, Selma finally resorts to bludgeoning Bill with a metal cash box and killing him.
Overcome with the terrible reality of what she's done, but soon distracted by the rhythmic scratching of a phonograph needle at the end of a record playing on Bill's hi-fi, Selma enters into yet another fantasy musical number. She has just enough time to give the cash to the doctor who will perform Gene's operation. At her "Sound of Music" rehearsal that night, Selma is arrested.
At her murder trial, many of Selma's formerly supportive friends testify against her. Hey eye doctor testifies that she is nearsighted, but not blind. The factory foreman testifies that she said Communism was better for human beings than democracy (a gross misinterpretation of her casual comment that the "sharing" done in Czechoslovakia was "a good thing.") Linda reviles her for showing Bill "no mercy." When Selma finally takes the stand, she maddeningly does not defend herself. She says she was saving money to send to her father, Oldrich Novy, in Czechoslovakia, and that Bill asked her to kill him (which is true) but that she "promised not to tell" why. When the real Novy (Joel Grey), a Czech musical star is called to the stand, he professes never to have seen or heard of Selma before. For her part, Selma is thrilled that her idol and fantasy father figure has shown up, and soon she's concocting yet another musical fantasy, this one in which she dances on the judge's desk with Novy. Lovely as the number is, it is only a brief respite in Selma's march towards tragedy. The court finds her guilty and sentences her to be hanged.
No one familiar with Von Trier's work will be surprised to see that his heroine is persecuted, betrayed and made to suffer horribly. The most obvious parallel is to "Breaking the Waves" and its heroine, Bess: both characters are innocent; both are driven by an illogical, self-destructive code of personal integrity; and both meet tragic ends. But the way that the townspeople suddenly turn on Selma after Bill's death, recasting actions and words which once seemed innocuous (wonder that Bill kept his gun at home, an apparent interest in Bill's money) as sinister, "Dancer in the Dark" also prefigures the gang rape and shackling of Grace in "Dogville": the natives turn on the outsider. (It's notable that only the European-born characters, Kathy and Jeff, stand by Selma until the bitter end, and neither of them are called to testify at her trial. This would seem to be one of Von Trier's trademark swipes at America, albeit a feeble one. Selma's own refusal to defend herself is as much the cause of her downfall as the accusations of her fellow townspeople.)
Unlike "Dogville's" Grace, however, Selma doesn't seek revenge, but rather goes to the gallows with little resistance. An attempt by Kathy to obtain a retrial for her is scuttled because it would require paying a new lawyer with the money intended for Gene's operation. Selma is ferociously clear on this; she rails at Kathy about the foolishness of "spending that kind of money on a blind woman who's going to spend the rest of her life in jail." Kathy's protests that Gene needs his mother fall on deaf ears, Selma insists "He needs his eyes!"
Selma assuages her fears in prison with more musical reveries, comforting herself with a strange rendition of "My Favorite Things" (possibly the most annoying cover of that song since Barbra Streisand's first Christmas album) and even steeling herself for the final walk to the gallows with fantasies of singing to and consoling male inmates on Death Row. The hanging scene goes on forever, and is almost unbearable to watch, with Selma screaming in fear. Kathy rushes to her, presses Gene's eyeglasses into her hands, and assures her that Gene has received the operation, and "he'll see his grandchildren." In this news, Selma finds needed peace. She begins to sing "this is the next to last song/there are no violins/the choir is so quiet/and no one takes a spin." In happier times, Selma admitted to Bill that she could never stand to see a musical end and so used to leave the cinema during "the next to last song." And once again, she'll make an early exit. In mid-song, the hangman trips the lever and Selma falls to her death. A curtain is drawn closed in front of the scene, and the film ends.
"Dancer in the Dark" is not the first or only musical in which a character escapes a bleak existence by escaping into musical fantasy. It's not even the first film musical to end with a hanging. (That would be the film adaptation of Dennis Potter's "Pennies from Heaven" in 1981, although that hanging was suggested rather than depicted.) But it is unique in that the musical fantasy scenes are set not to well-known popular songs, but to original music written and orchestrated by the film's star. Icelandic singer Bjork is famously eccentric and not to everyone's taste. (I sampled a couple of her other music videos and couldn't get past the first fifteen seconds of either.) Her singing is a bit eccentric, too. Too often she affects an odd, crackle-y quality that I can only describe as somewhere between a cartoon leprechaun and a badly played violin. It IS an affectation, though; her voice is clear-throated and thrilling when it needs to be. And no matter how I feel about Bjork's other music, I pretty much love all her songs in "Dancer in the Dark." In particular, "I've Seen it All" and "Smith and Wesson" serve important dramatic functions in the story.
Selma sings "I've Seen it All" to Jeff just after she's been fired from the foundry but before she learns her money has been taken - significantly, the last moment in which she can be under any illusion that she is in control of her own circumstances. The lyrics profess apathy about her encroaching blindness: Jeff sings to her about all the things she will never see like "your grandchild's hand as he strokes you hair" and Selma shrugs them off with "to be honest, I really don't care." But if the words are dismissive, the melody - fueled by the rumbling of a train on the tracks - is mournful and elegiac, and suggests that Selma may be in more pain than she's admitting.
Equally powerful is "Smith and Wesson" a fragmented and not terribly melodic reverie that Selma enters into just after killing Bill. This particular fantasy might be considered a full-blown dissociative state, a radical reaction to a reality that is too terrible for Selma to face. But it also represents her way of granting herself absolution through music, with a resurrected Bill telling her "You are forgiven," Linda sending her off before the police come, and even her son consoling her in a clear, boy's soprano that "you just did what you had to do" All before Selma walks into the lake at the song's conclusion, the water surrounding her clearly a symbol of purification and renewal. And it's significant that from this point on, all Selma's musical imaginings will likewise function to dissociate her from traumatic events such as her arrest, sentencing and hanging.
What I don't like about the musical numbers is the herky-jerky "Moulin Rouge"-esque way they're edited. (Jerky editing is, of course, a hallmark of Von Trier's filmmaking style, but it's far less tolerable in a musical production number than in an emotionally intimate scene of dialogue.) Von Trier used an ambitious filming process with as many as 100 digital video cameras simultaneously filming each dance number from 100 different angles. That sounds great, but it's probably at least 90 more cameras than were needed. Because we really don't need that many perspectives on a dance number; all we need is a way to see everyone in the scene and then a way to focus on one or more specific dancers at climactic moments. The cutting especially bugged me in the courtroom musical fantasy, 'cause if Joel Grey is going to dance, I want to see that. Without interruptions. And what I really wanted was a good, long two-shot of Bjork and Grey dancing together, because watching Selma dance with her beloved Novy would carry a lot more emotional reasonance than just getting a quick shot of Selma's face, a quick one of Novy's and then cutting away to a group of jurors snapping their fingers. The dance rehearsal master videos that were included in the DVD's special features were actually more satisfying to me than most of the finished, filmed dances.
Some films improve upon repeated viewings. Your experience of them deepens as you discover fresh nuances and layers of meaning with each viewing. And some only get less satistfying the more you see them. Oddly, for me "Dancer in the Dark" became both more and less in each of the three times I watched it over the last two weeks. On my second, third and fourth viewings, the lapses in logic and the enormous holes in the plot became almost risible. (Why doesn't Selma have a bank account instead of a damn candy box? How can Selma not know Bill is still in the room when she hides the money? How likely is it that Gene's eyes will deteriorate more rapidly if he finds out he's going blind, and why doesn't anyone challenge Selma on that crazy notion? Where is Gene's father? Why do people ask Selma why she had Gene if he was going to have a disease - abortions certainly weren't easily available in 1964. And I've already talked about the murder scene.) I'm willing to suspend my disbelief once in awhile if the payoff is worth it. But by the fourth viewing, I was convinced that Selma herself wrote the screenplay, so much are we asked to take on faith.
But the significance of the musical fantasies (in particular, the aforementioned "I've Seen it All") only became more apparent to me the more times I watched. And each time, I appreciated Bjork's performance more and more. If we believe anything that happens here, it's because Selma believes - and by extension, because Bjork believes. With her tiny brown eyes, upturned nose and round, lightly freckled cheeks, she's more elfin than womanly, equal parts innocence and foolishness. (There are moments in "I've Seen it All" where her facial expressions actually suggest not a grown woman, but an earnest toddler singing her heart out.) And there's an emotional immediacy in her performance that perfectly suits the trusting and innocent Selma. Her rapturous expressions when she hears a rhythm that speaks to her are something akin to religious ecstasy. Her joy in musical expression is something which literally inhabits and defines her, it bursts out of her from somewhere very true and deep. It's impossible to tell where Bjork begins and Selma ends.
Bjork famously battled with Von Trier on the "Dancer in the Dark" set and hasn't acted in a film since, which is understandable given the emotional toll this role must have taken on her. But more's the pity. Her screen presence is undeniably powerful. And her music certainly lends layers of meaning and emotional reasonance to what otherwise might have been just a dreary and pointless Von Trier tale of female self-sacrifice.
(For the record, I don't think that having a suffering female heroine in your film - or even several of your films - necessarily translates to misogyny, but Selma's suffering in this film seems particularly pointless to me. I don't see her as an allegorical character like Grace in "Dogville" or "Manderlay," and I'm not sure what we're meant to feel about her apparent martyrdom for the cause of saving her son's eyesight. We're don't close enough to Gene for that outcome to mean much.)
This much I am sure of: Lars Von Trier might be the name in big, bold letters on the title card, but for me, "Dancer in the Dark" is Bjork's movie from start to finish.