Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Dancer in the Dark

...a calculated attack on conventional sentimentality and Hollywood illusion ; the kind of movie
that means to frustrate your expectations rather than affirm your assumptions.

Dancer in the Dark
Grade : B+
Cast : Björk, Jean-Marc Barr, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, David Morse
Director : Lars von Trier
Rating : R
Running time : 134 minutes

If we accept the premise that most people do not go to the movies to be challenged, then we are obliged
to acknowledge that most people will have scant use for Danish director Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the
Dark, winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes and—in some circles, at least—the most discussed and
controversial movie of the year.

Some people might even feel insulted by the makeshift way von Trier simulates a rustic, timeless America—
an American seemingly caught between the Cold War ’50s and the Reagan ’80s, a green and rainy frontier
sparsely populated with workers and bureaucrats and kindly policemen who are not what they seem.
Those used to Hollywood’s habitual slickness are likely to be disturbed by the willfully clumsy style von
Trier affects—most of the movie is on video, in a mock vérité style that uses broken pans and abrupt cuts.
Often the actors seem to be improvising, often the camera seems less a disinterested documentarian than
a member of the mob.

It is a brutal, aggressively unpretty film—even during the musical numbers, when von Trier calls in the
studio lighting and the dancing boys. It is tough and pretentious and it succeeds—and it does succeed—
largely because of the performances of the pop singer Björk, in the central role, and Catherine Deneuve as
her best friend. Von Trier is merciless, but these women have moments of grace.

Björk, her round face bravely behind thick glasses, has rightly been accorded tons of critical praise for her
role as Selma, a Czech immigrant working two factory jobs to save pennies to by her son an operation (he
suffers from the same degenerative eye disease that’s causing her to go blind). Von Trier’s script is so
simple as to seem simple-minded ; and that’s his point—his last film, 1998’s The Idiots could be read as an
attack on the utility of narrative fiction itself. Von Trier is on a self-proclaimed “search for authenticity,”
and while I’m not willing to say he’s found it—while I’m not sure I even accept that his premise might
have merit—I will say that with Dancer in the Dark he’s raised some interesting questions and once again
demonstrated that a huge budget and big special effects aren’t requisites to making involving cinema.
While some of the stories about the singer’s method performance may be pure hype—Björk has said she
will never act again because the only way she knew to play the character was to become the character
and therefore she’s experienced the same trauma as the character—hers is a stunningly affecting
performance, emotionally acute and horribly raw. In a sense, it seems not like acting at all—there is no
sense of the actor’s intelligence working behind the scenes, just the blurting of a wounded animal. It can’t
be said it’s a keenly observed performance—Selma’s not at all like other people—but it is a thrillingly
honest one.

Honesty matters to von Trier, or at least he says it does, though his melodramatic script is mannered and
sarcastic. (”That’s the point !” his supporters insist. )

Dancer in the Dark is a calculated attack on conventional sentimentality and Hollywood illusion ; the kind
of movie that means to frustrate your expectations rather than affirm your assumptions. As one of the
founders of the Danish Dogma 95 movement, von Trier obviously thinks this is a good thing, I’m not so
sure.

Dancer in the Dark is deeply moving, but on another level it is as manipulative as Steel Magnolias. And von
Trier is not generous with his audience—one gets the feeling that he while he’d like us to believe that he
cares about people, that things like systemic dehumanization and capital punishment bother him, there’s
no sense that he actually likes his fellow humans. Selma is stupid—she gets ground up. That’s what happens
to stupid people.

Some of von Trier’s stratagems are as artificial as the Hollywood artifice he’s sworn—tongue-in-cheek,
probably, but maybe not—to destroy. Yet there are parts of this film that are undeniably inventive and
striking. It’s a movie for people who think too much about the movies—people who care that von Trier
has Selma watching 42nd Street on television.
Curiously enough, while Dancer in the Dark is designed to provoke and confuse, it’s not really very hard to
watch. Even if it sounds like the kind of movie you can’t stand, you probably won’t be bored by it. You
might be angered, but not bored.

I was a little surprised the film didn’t make me mad. I’m not a particular fan of von Trier’s work, and
regard his Dogma regulations—which forbid the use of anything other than hand-held cameras and
naturally occurring light and sound—a kind of Dadaist joke. While von Trier and his fellow Dogma 95
collectivists insist that their aggressively low-tech approach to filmmaking is a reaction to Hollywood
artificiality, in practice it often amounts to audience abuse. Von Trier’s beautiful, visually lush and
ultimately conventional thriller Zentropa (1992) is a better movie than his Dogma manifesto Breaking the
Waves (1995).

Von Trier must have recognized that the self-imposed limitations were counterproductive because Dancer
is not, strictly speaking, a Dogma film. Technically, it’s far from a simple film ; von Trier used more than
100 digital video cameras to film some of the musical numbers and the choreographer is as artificial as
anything Stanley Donen ever imagined.

What is simple about the film is its visceral stopping power. Björk’s performance, a performance for
which von Trier at least deserves some basic credit, if only for having the imagination to cast her—is
lacerating. She has latched onto something deep and genuine ; her martyrdom, her passion, is awesome.

Philip Martin

publié dans Arkansas Democrat Gazette - 31.07.2002

 

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