09 July 2009
Flashback at the movies: Dancer in the Dark.
I have a fondness for hard-hitting melodrama that I can date back to a very specific incident in my youth. One gloomy Saturday afternoon, my mother had me sit down and watch one of her favorite movies of all time, the Douglas Sirk remake of Imitation of Life. It was gaudy, overstylized, and methodically designed to reduce even the most stone-hearted viewer to tears. I loved it.
Several years later, I had a similar experience wherein my father had me watch John Waters' Female Trouble. I mention this, because if you were to take 70% of Imitation of Life and 30% of Female Trouble, you would have the basic tone of Lars von Trier's brutal musical epic Dancer in the Dark.
As emotionally wrenching as his sledgehammer-to-the-solar plexus love story Breaking the Waves and as formally intriguing as his own Dogme 95-derived ice pick into the subconscious of alienation and regret The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark tells the story of Czech immigrant Selma Jescova (Icelandic/Martian fairy princess/pop singer Bjork), who works double shifts at a steel sink factory in Washington State in the early sixties to save enough money to save the eyesight of her son. Selma is already feeling the effects of a particularly nasty form of congenital visual myopia, and she labors (at her own risk and the risk of her coworkers, oftentimes) ceaselessly to prevent her son Gene (newcomer Vladan Kostic) from suffering the same fate.
Selma, as played by Bjork, is almost a fragile, alien creature, possessed of delicate and unique features and a melodic brook of a voice. At no point in the film does she use anything approaching common sense, and yet her fierce resolve draws the viewer into tacit support of her, even as she remains alienating to both the audience and the other characters.
Even though she can barely see to make her proper steps, she is singing the role of Maria in a local production of The Sound of Music, and to hear Bjork's crystalline and visceral whoop of a voice tear into Rogers & Hammerstein is a treat in and of itself. Pulling double duty on this film (she also composed the unique and emotionally sumptuous songs), Bjork is almost as much the auteur as von Trier. Her character's obsession with musicals is such that even though she cannot see the screen, she attends the cinema religiously with her best friend Kathy (the ever-radiant Catherine Deneuve, here graceful as ever), who describes to her what happens on screen, even at some points tapping out the dance formations on the back of Selma's hand.
Deneuve’s unshowy work provides an emotional foundation to the film’s simultaneous canonization and mortification of Selma, as does Peter Stormare’s aching turn as Jeff, Selma’s meek and earnest suitor. Also of special note are the performances by David Morse (who is well-suited to emotional firestorms like this one, as anyone who has seen Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard can attest) and Siobhan Fallon. An SNL alumna (and you might recognize her as the bus driver from Forrest Gump), Fallon here turns an oddly written part into a quietly devastating portrait of compassion.
If this all sounds twee, or corny, rest assured that it is not. There are a few moments of joy (the musical numbers, a gracious gift of a bicycle, some fancy candies) that are as welcome a relief as any for both the characters and the audience as wave after wave of hardship crashes into Selma and Gene. When an unscrupulous neighbor (and former friend) betrays Selma, a rickety Rube Goldberg machine of mortification and martyrdom is set into motion, as fixated on tragedy as Juanita Moore's radiant Annie Johnson in Imitation of Life or Divine's Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble.
This film has been brewing up controversy just about everywhere it goes, winning the Palme d'Or (Best Picture) and Best Actress (for Bjork) awards at this year's Cannes film festival amid scathing reviews and criticisms and equal amounts of ovation and booing at screenings. Writer/Director von Trier has always thrived on such drama, and it is apparent that he has no intention of mellowing any time soon (longtime von Trier fans will be pleased to know that the title of the film is still displayed against his mammoth name).
Equally iconoclastic and respectful to the classical Hollywood musical (the film even begins with an abstract overture, a pleasant touch that I last recall in the duelling space epics of 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Black Hole), the films super-saturated DV musical numbers are both meticulously choreographed and messily assembled. Supposedly 100digital video cameras were used in the filming of these sequences, but you'd think that that sort of setup would allow for more satisfying coverage of the dance numbers. Unless, of course, there is a philosophical reason for it. And I believe there is. The muddy hues of digital video continually keep us behind the failing eyes of Selma, and even the deeply-hued musical sequences still look unnatural when compared to the inherent glamour of film.
Director of Photography Robby Muller (Dead Man, Breaking the Waves, Barfly), with von Trier as camera operator, crafts a unique landscape that gleams as often as it disappears, always finding the right light for the emotional center of the scene. As is typical of Von Trier’s work, jump cuts are present in abundance, though rather than being disorienting, they keep the flow of the dialogue continuous.
I wouldn't dream of spilling any of the beans, brazen plot machinations, or implausible tragedies that are sprung throughout the film, but I recommend you experience it in the spirit of Douglas Sirk, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or yes, even John Waters. Let’s just say that before this film finishes playing its cards that greed, anticommunism, the American judicial system, and the hearts and souls of the audience are all thrashed soundly AND you get to see the inimitable Joel Grey tap-dance in a showstopper of a number. This is not for everybody. This is hard-hitting melodrama at its most unique, experimental, and brutally alive.