I didn’t care for Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves — too much slack-jawed beatitude for my taste, and the director’s twisted madonna-whore complex made me very nervous. So I was astonished to find myself weeping copiously over von Trier’s latest, which is another parable of monomaniacal sainthood, only without benefit of the Scottish Highlands or the fabulous phiz of Emily Watson. Given the thematic similarities between the two movies and the rapture with which many critics greeted the first, one has to wonder whether as many brickbats would have been hurled at Dancer in the Dark when it screened at Cannes earlier this year (it also won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress award) had a looker like Watson taken the lead instead of a freckled Icelandic leprechaun in thick glasses and tousled elf-locks. Björk aside, what film boasting Catherine Deneuve — who wanted badly enough to work with von Trier to offer her services unsolicited — frumped up in earth-toned cardigans, and in one ineffable scene barking like a dog, could fail to divide the critics?
I don’t imagine the opprobrium irked von Trier for a second. Sowing dissent is an article of faith with this ornery Dane, whose Dogma 95 collective anointed itself gadfly-in-chief to mainstream film practice in particular and bourgeois vanity at large. In common with many self-marginalized artists, von Trier has the unbending soul of a purist. (Not for nothing is the Dogma code, which heaps scorn on the Hollywood film’s manipulation of its audiences, known as a “vow of chastity.”) Still, von Trier’s pendulum has swung wide, from the chill, impenetrably brilliant Zentropa, to the guileless abandon of Breaking the Waves and back again, to the unjustly reviled The Idiots, a truculently Dogma-style movie — rough-hewn, improvised — about a group of Young Turks that goes about aping the mentally handicapped to get a rise out of the stolid Danish burgher class. Without the saving shame the group comes to feel about its own calculated cruelties (including toward the de rigueur von Trier innocent they’ve adopted), The Idiots would indeed have been the loathsome work its detractors dubbed it. Whether through middle age or parenthood or whatever, von Trier is growing a softer, less censorious self, to the point now of embracing the very genres his collective lives to negate.
In his own way, of course. Though it may seem that framing Dancer as a musical — two actually — set in a tool-and-die factory in Washington state, circa 1964, is von Trier’s less than sly dig at Hollywood’s caramelizing of ordinary life, the sensibility is as much Gene Kelly as it is Dennis Potter. Like Potter, von Trier grew up on musicals and loves them with the same savage ambivalence. So it’s a far from perfect irony that in Dancer, the Czech steel-presser Selma (Björk) spends her evenings rehearsing for Maria in an amateur production of The Sound of Music, much less that the rhythmic hiss and wheeze of the steel presses inspire her to create lovely musical numbers (composed by Björk) in her head that release her from life’s miseries, which are piled on with the genial gusto of a true sadist. Dancer, which von Trier calls a musical melodrama, is preposterous in the way that opera is preposterous. Selma is a little match girl, an impoverished immigrant of impossibly blameless character who’s going blind from an inherited disease and supplements her income carding hairpins to pay for the surgery that will save her son from the same fate. You, too, may go blind from the wild swinging of the hand-held camera — von Trier’s prime tool in the refusal of Hollywood artifice — that tracks Selma through her dreary daily routines. It’s a curious bid for documentary naturalism that calls to mind someone’s inept and irritating home movie more than it does any reality, and it’s lucky for us that the director has in tow, as he did on Breaking the Waves, the cinematographer-poet Robby Müller, who can undo you with one steady shot of a moonlit prison.
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Like Watson’s preternaturally trusting Bess in Breaking the Waves, and Joan of Arc before her, Selma attracts absolute devotion — from her fiercely loyal friend Kathy (Deneuve) and from a local lug (played by Peter Stormare, who so ably creeped up Fargo) who loves her unreservedly and follows her around like a faithful pup. Like so many saints, she is also a sitting target for hatred and exploitation (if you doubt me, look up The Missionary Position, Christopher Hitchens’ demolition derby on Mother Teresa), first from her cash-strapped landlord and benefactor (David Morse), who tries to steal her money, and then in a murder trial whose prosecutor damns her as “this romantic, Communistic girl who loves Fred Astaire.”
And when Astaire, disguised as Joel Grey disguised as a Czech musical-comedy star whom Selma idolized, shows up to dance around the courthouse benches, it’s no more a cynical moment than any of the other song-and-dance sequences that, MGM-style, spirit Selma away from her miserable fate and up into an ecstasy that echoes Emily Watson’s embrace of her awful destiny — an embrace so polished and easy that I never bought it for a moment. With her golden hair and blue saucer eyes, all Watson had to do was part her lips and look seraphic; after a while, I wanted to slap her. Lacking the ballast of Hollywood good looks, Björk is a slowly unfurling diamond in the rough, her strained, near-expressionless face lit into radiance by the melodies that race through her mind, liberating her from the ugliness around her. It’s a performance of such conviction that by the time we join Selma on death row, bouncing around on her bunk bed and warbling a few bars of “Raindrops on Roses,” she looks like a beautiful Irish silky, and we’re ready, if not necessarily willing, for a gallows finale that goes out with a song.
It’s not exactly likability that confers sainthood on Selma: Her intractable refusal of compromise may mirror von Trier’s own. It takes a blinkered outlook and a modicum of ruthlessness to be a committed martyr — martyrs are not, by nature, liberals. But she is also like her creator in being prepared to do what it takes to serve her goals. That same bizarre brew of absolutist attachment to principles and ruthless opportunism may have led von Trier to write, without apparent irony, in the production notes, “I’m deeply against the death penalty. On the other hand, execution scenes are God’s gift to directors.” No doubt that’s why he wrings every last drop of terror and ecstasy from Selma’s last walk toward the hangman’s noose. That you keep watching is a measure of von Trier’s art, and Björk’s ardor. As is the feeling of defilement with which you walk away.
DANCER IN THE DARK | Written and directed by LARS VON TRIER | Produced by VIBEKE WINDELØV Released by Fine Line Features | At selected theaters