Missteps for ‘Dancer in the Dark’


Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” that most morose of musicals, is so exasperating in its contradictions, so frustrating in its fakery, so deeply irritating in its pretensions, it’s frankly hard to know where to begin to dissect it.

This is truly a through-the-looking-glass movie, where pervasive inauthenticity is meant to be taken as a mark of transcendent genuineness, where every shameless contrivance, every cynical manipulation, every frame of carefully calculated clumsiness--awkward writing, bungled acting, intentionally ugly cinematography, co-star Catherine Deneuve dressed in the kind of threadbare shmates my old aunts used to wear--is intended as further proof of an honesty and profundity that is supposed to make us grateful instead of aggravated beyond measure.

If further complications are needed, ponder the following: This movie, which worships preposterousness and considers the false to be true, nevertheless contains a remarkable performance by Icelandic pop diva Bjork. Playing a factory worker with more woes than Job, she is, against all reason and expectation, honest and genuine. Go figure that one out.


Easier to figure is where “Dancer’s” artistic point of view comes from. Like the keep-it-real philosophy of Denmark’s Dogma 95 group, of which Von Trier is a founding member, it stems from an almost visceral disgust at the visual slickness, the callow professionalism, the glossy craft skill of the kind of Hollywood cinema that is relentlessly taking over the world. Although not technically a Dogma film, “Dancer’s” delight in the crude and the ugly for their own sake clearly has its roots there.

But, again paradoxically, “Dancer” may be abandoning Hollywood techniques but not the venerable, so-old-they’re-new dramatic forms that have been studio staples for forever. Not only is “Dancer” a musical, it is entirely composed of the rankest, most blatant melodramatic elements, plot contrivances so excessive they make the unsubtle output of producer Jerry Bruckheimer look like the work of austere French director Robert Bresson. In fact, based on this film’s reception, Bruckheimer may be justified in feeling that the only thing that separates his pictures from a Palme d’Or at Cannes and the prestigious opening-night slot at the New York Film Festival is grainy cinematography, a tragic ending and a von in the middle of his name.

In terms of story line, “Dancer’s” tale of a poor little match girl of a Czech immigrant who suffers, suffers, suffers (oh, how she suffers) in rural Washington in 1964 has links to his earlier “Breaking the Waves.” Both are stories of saintly women, too good, too pure, too innocent for this sinful world, women who are abused, tortured and finally destroyed by men. Why do you make films, a female journalist asked the director at Cannes, that could have the collective title of “Breaking the Wives.” Von Trier said he didn’t know.

The simple-minded sufferer this time around is Selma Jezkova (Bjork), an industrious young mother who works a machine at the John Anderson Tool Co. Everyone in town, including her considerate neighbors Bill, the town policeman (David Morse), and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour), knows Selma’s sight is bad, but no one knows that she’s in the grip of a dread but nameless disease that’s going to blind her in a New York minute. This dread but nameless disease (DBND for short) is also hereditary, but Selma is determined it’s not going to ruin the sight of her 10-year-old son, Gene. It turns out, by the merest chance, that not only is there an operation that can cure the DBND, but it’s regularly performed at a hospital close to Selma’s humble trailer home.

The worse Selma’s eyes get (and yes, they do get worse), the harder she works, taking on a second shift at the plant, ignoring Jeff (Peter Stormare), the hapless geek who is in love with her, even taking on the piece-work job of arranging bobby pins on strips of cardboard. Every penny--it comes to a heart-tugging total of $2,056.10 at last count--must be saved for Gene’s operation. That’s close to enough, but anyone who thinks our young heroine is going to achieve her goals without the most painful, agonizing and bogus experiences Von Trier can imagine hasn’t been paying attention.

The only diversion Selma allows herself are musicals. She watches them with best friend Kathy (Deneuve), shows up at rehearsals for the most pathetic amateur production of “The Sound of Music” in American theatrical history, and even uses her imagination to turn her factory daydreams and reveries into musical production numbers.


Though they may appear unusual to domestic audiences, songs and dances set amid machines were, as detailed in the wonderful documentary “East Side Story,” a staple of musicals made behind the Iron Curtain. What’s different here is the deadly lugubriousness of the dancing, the thudding nature of routines that are notable only for their glumness and zombie-like lack of joy.

Cut from the same cloth is the listlessness of most of the acting, a state encouraged by Von Trier, who has never been to this country and clearly couldn’t care less if the line readings sound recognizably American or not. Just to make sure everyone gets his message, the director operated the camera himself (veteran Robby Muller was the cinematographer) and imposed a jittery, intrusive visual style that pushes the image right in the viewer’s face, the better to milk the already overdone emotions.

The only actor to survive 2 hours and 20 minutes of this tedium is Bjork. Called on to carry a misery-laden picture without any acting training to fall back on, Bjork, by all reports, had to more or less live Selma’s tortured life to get it on film. “Bjork was not acting anything, she was feeling everything,” is how Von Trier explained the process in Cannes, “and that made it extremely hard on herself and everyone else.”

In her case, at least, this process was worthwhile, as the intensity with which Bjork threw herself into the role and the degree to which she believed in her preposterous character lend an undeniable integrity and authenticity to Selma and made Bjork’s best actress prize at Cannes more universally popular than the film’s Palme d’Or. With her whimsical half smile, indescribable accent and overall impish quality, Bjork’s Selma has something wonderfully alive and genuine about her that even the waves of surrounding dross can’t completely tarnish.

“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens,” says Selma during a break between the tortures of the damned. “When I worked in the factory, I used to dream of being in a musical.” After all she’s been through, who has the heart to tell her she couldn’t possibly stand the one’s she’s in.

* MPAA rating: R, for some violence. Times guidelines: an extremely graphic public hanging and a particularly brutal murder.

‘Dancer in the Dark’

Bjork: Selma

Catherine Deneuve: Kathy

Peter Stormare: Jeff

David Morse: Bill

Jean-Marc Barr: Norman

Joel Grey: Oldrich Novy

Released by Fine Line Features. Director Lars von Trier. Producer Vibeke Windelov. Screenplay Lars von Trier. Cinematographer Robby Muller. Editor Anders Refn. Costumes Manon Rasmussen. Music Bjork. Production design Karl Juliusson. Choreographer Vincent Paterson. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

In limited release.