The Unnerving Lure of “Dancer in the Dark”

By Kevin Brent

“It sounded simple, to do a musical. It’s an idea I’d always had. But who knows how to make a musical?” – Lars Von Trier, Director

It seems the greatest challenge Von Trier faced in the making of “Dancer in the Dark” was not only in creating a sweeping musical in the framework of a contemporary motion picture, but to sell this outdated notion to an unpredictable American audience.

And if that weren’t enough to give the marketing department at New Line Cinema a throbbing migraine, Von Trier chose a somewhat obscure Icelandic rock star as his leading lady, then proceeded to lead her down the most shockingly tragic path since Emily Watson cursed the crashing surf in his 1996 epic, Breaking the Waves.

Clearly Von Trier’s ambitions do not rest in the bottom line, much like Bjork, the enigmatic former member of Iceland’s greatest pop import, the Sugarcubes. For the last eight years, as a solo performer, she has composed some of the most imaginative, compelling music on the planet, somehow able to viably link opera, industrial and ethereal pop into deeply personal compositions. Though at the top of their respective games in the indie/art forum, neither Bjork nor Von Trier have at any time expressed an interest in even flirting with the temptations of the main stream.

And with this mindset both stringently follow suit. “Dancer in the Dark” certainly will not become a substantial box office draw. In fact, it may alienate more than it is able to enlighten. But, that said, it is hard to argue against the ambivolent impact the film possesses.

The movie is astonishing in its direction and especially in its casting — nary a weakness can be detected in the prowess of the cast’s performances. At times “Dancer” appears as a spectacle for the piteous existence of Bjork’s Selma, while at other it is a pure celebration of the human spirit and the heights to which it can ascend.

But be suitable warned – there is no denying the wrenching experience it is to witness Selma’s horrific fate. It is difficult to not feel as tortured as our protagonist, especially one who is so detuned from the confines of society that she cannot and will not speak out against her unrelenting oppressors. Her introversion away from the world becomes so strong and at such critical junctures you almost wish you could speak out on her behalf during the trial for her life. Such is the range of her ability, to pull us in so deeply that the notion of her downfall demands such intense audience sympathy. Perhaps that is why she was named Best Actress in the film which won the Grand Prize (Palme D’Or) at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

Based on the life of a poor immigrant (Selma) and her son Gene, both stricken with a degenerating vision disorder, “Dancer” is a story of betrayal as much as it is of trust and belief. Selma’s one goal is to save enough money to pay for an operation to correct her son’s sight. Set in a rugged northern town in Washington State circa 1964, Selma’s existence seems complete, despite her own impending blindness, with the comfort of a healthy son, a good friend (Catherine Deneuve), and a slow but well intentioned admirer (Peter Stormare). It is when her landlord (David Morse) steals her savings to rescue his own troubled finances that we bear witness to our protagonist’s harrowing downfall.

Much has been made of the on set spats between Bjork and Von Trier, much of it centering around the splicing of the musical compositions Bjork composed specifically for the film. As is the common practice in motion pictures, tracks are routinely edited to fit within a specific framework allowed. Bjork’s volatility signals an obvious and forgivable unfamiliarity with the form.

That much having been said, there are recognizable weaknesses evident in the body of many of the musical numbers. Firstly, Bjork is difficult to interpret. Simple as that. And, when the songs are meant to convey movement in the plot or a specific emotion at the time, it is essential the lyrics are comprehensible to the audience. Secondly, many of the numbers were so overly choreographed that the result was simply chaotic, as a myriad of performers crowded the screen, each seemingly involved in an individual dance of their own creation. And finally, other musical segments just dragged on too long, dwelling on the sounds of power machinery endlessly looping, while Von Trier focuses on inanimate objects of no seeming symbolic relevance to the story. It is unclear why such tactics were employed other than to appeal to a higher art only he comprehends.

It was quite a sight exiting the Los Angeles premier. Most eyes were wet, some viewers were visibly shaking, while others were simply white and zombie-like as they staggered from the theater. And it just made me wonder how an Academy would treat such a film which offers little or no hope and a thoroughly unhappy ending. As I hopped in my car and began the peaceful journey down the 405 to Orange County, I recounted the performances in my head, and dissected the experience of the film as a whole. It was then I realized it really didn’t make a bit of difference one way or the other what the Academy thought.