Full disclosure : I’m a sucker for musicals. Like Selma, the heroine in Lars von Trier’s new movie Dancer in the Dark, I grew up in a dour and grey European country (well—Germany), starry-eyed with Hollywood fantasies, Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, and Steven Sondheim. For me, the age-old question of all musical skeptics, “Why the hell do they break into song ?” was never a mystery. I thought it would be wonderful if suddenly, all the world knew the lyrics and dance steps that perfectly expressed who you were, whether or not something good was coming, and which ones were my favorite things.
Therefore, it will come as no surprise that I rather liked Dancer in the Dark, which features some of the most marvelously exhilarating digitally shot postmodern song-and-dance numbers in any heartwrenching tragedy in recent memory. Wait...make that the only digital postmodern techno tragic dance numbers, ever.
So what’s the movie about ? Dancer in the Dark is the story of Selma, played by Icelandic pop diva Björk, a Czech factory worker in Oregon who is slowly going blind and works double-time at her factory job to save up the money she needs to pay for the operation that will save her son from the same fate.
If this sounds like a rough life to you, you should know that it gets worse from here. With grim determination, von Trier tightens the screws and sends Selma down a road of betrayal, greed, and pain that ends on death row.
If you’ve seen von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, you should have a pretty good idea whether or not you’ll like Dancer because in many ways, this movie is a remake of that one. Both films are arranged around the tragic fate of a strong yet vulnerable female character. Both films feature merciless male authority figures, disarming performances (Björk, like Emily Watson before her, is amazing, and Catherine Deneuve is, well, Catherine Deneuve), and loving but helpless men.
Von Trier’s trademark style, the jerky camera movements with rough cuts and natural lightning reminiscent of Super 8 home movies, is in full effect once more, but like Breaking the Waves, Dancer is not a strict Dogme ’95 movie. Instead, much like the gorgeous chapter headings in the earlier movie, von Trier juxtaposes beautifully shot musical numbers with the harsher reality.
This is the first musical in which the music doesn’t pop out of nowhere because that’s the convention, but grows out of rhythms found in the real world. A scratching pencil, a train clattering over railroad tracks, a needle caught in a groove, or the industrial stomping of factory machines, anything can set off Selma’s musical reveries. Suddenly, the colors become richer, Bjork begins to wail, the surround sound kicks in, and the movie celebrates a life that could have been if it wasn’t for the awful circumstances of Selma’s life.
The musical numbers are carefully placed so that every rude awakening from the sometimes jarring but always rousing songs lead her one step further down the path to her doom. The songs, Selma’s way of dealing with her horrible fate, have the same function for the audience : without the music, this film would be unwatchable. Once and for all, it answers the question about why people break out into song in movies, and as far as I am concerned, Dancer deserves a place in movie heaven for this achievement alone.
In the final judgment however, I wonder if von Trier isn’t just as dishonest as the glib Hollywood entertainment the rules of Dogme ’95 criticize. His documentary-like visual style appears to be honest and straightforward, and he certainly offers a great alternative to the worn-out conventions of traditional cinema — but if you look at the unabashed sentimentality and the shameless melodrama of this movie, you can see that this filmmaker does not hesitate to pull out all the stops and exploit his new form for the same ends as, say, Douglas Sirk. Isn’t this anything but Hollywood melodrama by different means ? See if you can keep from choking up in the end.
Dancer in the Dark is certainly an experience that no movie fan should miss, but I left the theater feeling slightly empty, knowing that I had been taken for a ride. A wonderful and heart-wrenching ride, no doubt, but in the end, I expect more from a great filmmaker than the expert manipulation of his audience for a few tears.