Dancer in the Dark begins with a few tiny eye-like dark spots that appear, scattered, on a white background. There is enough time to begin to construe what one is seeing as a representational image ; but then, frustrating such expectations, an abstract pattern slowly emerges around the spots. The computer- generated pattern undergoes a series of transformations, first monochromatic then multicolored, and a symphonic tone poem accompanies the shifting patterns. This intriguing son et lumière establishes a mood. Something extraordinary—avant-garde art, not a movie—is about to happen. Thick computer- stroked swirls fill the screen until, with an orchestral crescendo, a last delicate cloud-like pattern appears and disappears like a vision of hope. The entire screen turns a gorgeous indigo blue and, if one is attentive, for a brief instant one can see etched in huge block letters the director’s name, Lars von Trier.
This prelude (in retrospect, it is almost an abstract prefiguration of the film) seems to defy conventional movie rules. At the same time, by using computer technology and acknowledging the director, von Trier breaks his own rules for convention-breaking, which his circle of filmmakers espoused in “Dogma 95,” a back-to-basics manifesto, whose tenth and final principle is : “Never Credit the Director.”
Von Trier, a highly successful Danish television producer, filmmaker, and cinema rebel, is full of psychological contradictions. Or so he presents himself in published interviews. The life story he tells journalists could have been written for the movies, and is only slightly less melodramatic than his films. His Danish parents met in Sweden, where they were escaping the Nazis—his father because he was Jewish, his mother because she had been in the resistance. Both later worked in the Danish Social Service Administration. They were also devout atheists and nudists who dragged their children along with them to nudist camps. His mother, a life-long communist, told him on her deathbed that his deceased Jewish father was not his biological father. Von Trier spent nine years on a therapist’s couch, “coming up with one enormity after another about my mother and the way she let me down” and struggling to make sense of his childhood without knowing that crucial family secret. He claims that his mother also revealed his biological father’s identity and urged that he seek him out. He so did after his mother’s death, and the man wanted nothing to do with him.
Although he grew up thinking of himself as an atheistic Jew (Trier, he says, is a recognizable Jewish name in Denmark), he has since converted to Catholicism. Despite having adopted a radical communal ideology and condemning bourgeois hypocrisy, he has paradoxically added an arriviste “von” to his name. It is difficult to know whether to believe von Trier, for he might be following in Fellini’s tradition of never telling a journalist or a film critic the truth. But if his mother filled his childhood with enormities and made this dying declaration, he must have inherited some of his aesthetic sensibility from her.
Von Trier is the founding member of Dogma 95 : four filmmakers with a manifesto and Ten Commandments against conventional movie-making. Though the rhetoric is part send up, calling for “a Vow of Chastity” and establishing Luddite rules for filmmaking that the rebellious von Trier (fortunately) does not follow, Dogma’s indictment is telling. “The movie has been cosmeticized,” reads the manifesto. The hi-tech methods of Hollywood movies have become the message of the film industry.
The Vow of Chastity calls for filmmakers to give up high-speed chases, special effects, slick surreal violence, artificial lighting, and standard high-tech sound and cinematography. The handheld camera that makes some people nauseous is standard for Dogma 95. The Dogma secretariat actually advertised a Dogma certificate for any film made in accordance with the group’s principles, and it was widely rumored that their antichrist, Stephen Spielberg, considered taking them up on the offer.
Nouvelle vague of the 1960s was conceived in a similar spirit by French cineasts who realized that the Hollywood studios had turned the movie into a product to be consumed. They wanted film to be an encounter between director and audience, but, according to von Trier, the New Wave lost its momentum by succumbing to the lure of “cosmetic” filmmaking and to the directors’ own bourgeois artistic pretensions. Von Trier’s goal is to resist the homogenized look and feel of commercial film. To achieve his goal he has sworn an oath : “I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste ! I am no longer an artist.... My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings.”
Dogma 95 is trying to reinvent film as an art form. But they are not apt to succeed with anonymously made home movies that qualify for the Dogma seal of approval. There is nothing home-movie-like about Dancer in the Dark. Von Trier did forego the zoom-in camera on a crane for which Hollywood dance production numbers are cosmetically arranged. But he came up with a Dogma alternative : to use one hundred fixed cameras so that he could select footage in what looks like a more natural arrangement.
No real artist, and von Trier is one, can do without his personal taste. Before a chorus could sing the Magnificat, Bach had to write it. Perhaps von Trier, in his self-denying proclamations, was thinking of the nameless artisans who together produced the carvings on Gothic cathedrals, or perhaps Picasso and Braque merging as artists to create Cubism. Film certainly can be and is always to some extent a collective endeavor. But it cannot be leaderless. The auteur in particular is alone in his moment of creativity even though he may dream that his muse is the others. When roused from that dream to full wakefulness, the artist’s ego usually takes over. Presumably ego is why von Trier breaks the rule about crediting the director, and it must be said he does it beautifully on that indigo-colored screen.
Lars von Trier tells us that a film should be “like a rock in one’s shoe.” By that standard, his two films that are best known here in America, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, are certainly successes. Both have as their protagonists eccentric and victimized women—direct descendants of Jane Campion’s mute Ada, who spoke to us through her piano. Emily Watson, who played Bess in Breaking the Waves, is, like Campion’s Ada, a Scotch Presbyterian ; instead of playing the piano in times of stress, she talks to God and lets us listen in on her conversations. Is this conversation madness or a miracle ? She speaks both parts— God in a deep baritone. The film keeps us in suspense until the end, when it turns out that Bess is a saint and, like many before her, shunned in her time of need by her church and its patriarchal rectitude. Testing the division between sacred and profane as well as between madness and sanity, Bess achieves her martyrdom by masochistically enacting her paralyzed husband’s perverse sexual fantasies with other men as an offering of a sacred love to him. As von Trier takes Bess deeper and more damagingly into promiscuous and cruel degradation one feels revolted and disturbed—and yet gripped by his film. People got up and left the theater, but I am sure that like those who stayed behind they walked away with “a rock in their shoe.”
There is something deeply mysterious about Bess. Her attachment to her husband, an outsider who works on an oilrig in the North Sea, is entirely erotic. Indeed, the sexual attraction is so intense that she interrupts her wedding in order to have intercourse in a toilet. The husband seems almost amused by her intensity and her total lack of reticence. It is as though he is marrying her on a lark without any real commitment. And she is without any pretense of sophistication, a self without self-interest, child-like by the standards of civilized society, lacking all cunning and calculation. In the film there is a question of whether she is mad, but Bess fits nowhere in the catalogue of human mental disorders. Not a real person, she is, in the end, von Trier’s way of asking us : What does it mean to be human ?
When critics objected to von Trier’s victimized woman and to the blasphemous religious theme, he put them off in Felliniesque style. Breaking the Waves, von Trier said, “was just a simple love story.” The film, which ran more than two and a half hours, was divided into sections by freeze-framed, computer-enhanced photographs, and the entire footage was processed in such a way as to make it appear grainy. Its controversial substance and style made von Trier’s international reputation.
Like Picasso, von Trier has an XXL ego and his art has a sadistic streak. Hard as it may be to accept, sadism can be an important element of creativity. Nabokov doles it out in his “Laughter in the Dark,” where a blind man is endlessly tortured by imagining the infidelities his wife is in fact carrying on before his unseeing eyes. Many celebrated filmmakers, including Hitchcock, thrived on a carefully titrated dosage of sadism—often against women (as in Psycho and The Birds). Hitchcock’s hallmark is the sense of cruel danger lurking behind the commonplace. The sadistic creators of such art push characters and audience beyond the limits of their psychic security system ; one either turns away or accepts the “rock in one’s shoe.”
Though von Trier is neither Picasso nor Hitchcock, he is one of Europe’s most provocative and adventurous filmmakers. When Dancer in the Dark won the Palme D’Or at Cannes to the boos, catwhistles, and jeers of the audience, von Trier got just what he wanted. His films do not pander to escapism or to the audiences settled expectations about entertainment. In “forcing the truth out of (his) characters” he makes them and his audience suffer. But surely it was not “truth” that the Cannes jury saw in Dancer in the Dark. They gave von Trier the prize because they felt the full force of his quirky personal artistic taste and welcomed his assault on their jaded sensibilities. Dancer in the Dark is a film that is also a critique, an all-out assault on cosmeticized movies that is intent on offending the consumers of glamorized, adrenalized, beautified film.
The first assault is leveled at his heroine, Selma, who is played by the Icelandic rock star Björk. Instead of talking to God, Selma escapes from the horrors of her reality into the saccharine fantasy world of The Sound of Music. In von Trier’s sadistic imagination, she is the lumpenproletariat—fed Hollywood movies as the Romans were fed bread and circuses. Selma, like Bess, is a selfless and childlike saint, and in the course of the film she will suffer and die for her son. Although American publicists describe her love for her son as unconditional, Selma shows no affection to him, nor any intimacy or acceptance. It is love as self-sacrifice.
Von Trier says his inspiration for Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark was a children’s book his father considered sentimental rubbish. The story Gold Heart is about a little girl who goes into the woods and gives everything she has to the animals until she is left naked. The last page of his book was missing and these films supply the hand-of-God ending that he imagined for thestory—a child’s God invented against his parent’s atheism. Again it is difficult to tell whether von Trier is playing Fellini games with us. Is this story true ? Or is von Trier contriving a fable of creativity from his many years on the psychoanalyst’s couch ? Still, his fable seems to provide a solution to the mystery of the selfless self we see in Bess and Selma—each is a “gold heart.”
Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, which the critic Pauline Kael described as capable of turning people “into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles,” infects Dancer in the Dark as it has apparently infected popular culture around the globe. Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things uses the movie as an ironic background to the gritty reality of Kerala, in southern India. The Sound of Music provides musical accompaniment for the sexual molestation of a small boy in a movie theater. The lyrics “do, a deer” continues to echo incongruously through the novel and the ruined child’s mind.
Von Trier’s heroine Selma, who has no material possessions, keeps singing “These are a Few of My Favorite Things.” The New York Times ran a waggish headline : “From the Voice of Dogma Comes the Sound of Music.” But that voice is filled with withering irony. The Sound of Music belongs to the class of films that von Trier and his heroine Björk will here de-cosmeticize.
Von Trier begins by literally depriving Björk of any cosmetics, and by making her wear thick, ugly glasses. His hand-held camera cruelly exaggerates every imperfection in his actress’ face and complexion. The Björk one sees on posters in the windows of music stores is unrecognizable as von Trier’s Selma. Just as he did with Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, von Trier takes us beyond the ugliness to an unglamorous beauty that becomes visible on the screen. Emily Watson describes herself as “a funny-looking fucker,” but by the end of Breaking the Waves, von Trier’s cruel handheld camera had discovered or created beauty.
If it is possible, von Trier is even more cruel to Björk than he was to Watson. The legendary male directors begin with the beautiful face of a woman : Dietrich, Garbo, Hayworth, Bardot. They film it with erotic voyeuristic longing, as they seek artistic possession of her subjectivity. The rebellious von Trier wants none of that ; like Rembrandt he is bent on finding beauty in ugliness and he succeeds—that is his truth.
Emily Watson was an unknown theatrical actress when von Trier chose her for Breaking the Waves, but Björk was already an international rock star. She had done it all in music—from recording folk songs at age eleven to punk rock to atonal rock to Icelandic jazz to the soul-jazz of her MTV hit, “Human Behavior.” Von Trier could not have found a better collaborator for a musical ; she is a rebel in her own right, quite willing—indeed eager—to test the limits of convention, musical or otherwise. Together they have made a movie musical that mocks the genre at every turn. But it is a strange kind of mockery : absurd, ironic and far from dismissive.
Björk’s music (which she composed herself) is as unadorned as her face. It is mostly a cappella and atonal, and you will not go home singing a tune from Dancer in the Dark. Much of it is recitative, a music of raw emotion, the cry of the heart without a melody. It is impossible to believe that anyone but Björk could have managed this haunting performance. Everything she has ever done in music is compressed into this role ; it is nothing less than a form of aboriginal creativity—a song and dance version of a prolonged primal scream. Von Trier admits that he had to learn to like Björk’s unconventional music. It seems that the public is learning too : the soundtrack is playing everywhere, and the experts have declared it one of the best CDs of the year.
But what is the truth in this film ? Von Trier is no more holding a mirror up to nature than Robert Wise was when he made The Sound of Music. For example, in a bizarre touch of unreality von Trier casts Katherine Deneuve as Selma’s friend and coworker in a factory in the state of Washington, circa 1960. His explanation, again Felliniesque, is that Katherine Deneuve wrote and asked him if she could be in his film. And why not ? So he offered her the role of Selma’s friend “Kathy.” Catherine is no Kathy, and even if he had tried I do not think von Trier could have made Deneuve appear ordinary or ugly. A symbol of the Republic, her regal face now graces every town hall in France. Deneuve’s familiar French accent and her air of refinement would make her totally out of place if von Trier were forcing truth out of his working-poor characters and factory settings in the tradition of social realism. Here Deneuve’s patrician beauty illuminates Björk’s ugliness. The film belongs to Björk, but if one becomes inured to her tragic ugliness, that image is replenished by the juxtaposition of Deneuve’s beauty. Deneuve as a factory worker, even with a kerchief around her blond coiffure, is not a choice of truth as reality but it is a startlingly creative aesthetic decision. It is as if von Trier were saying to the audience : “See, I am not obdurate ; I do not insist that all my actresses be ugly.” Still, by the time he is through with these two actresses it is Björk’s beauty that you will remember.
Dancer in the Dark, for many reasons, including its style, is more like an opera than the musical it mocks. But, in fact, it does not comfortably belong to any genre—which is what one has come to expect of a von Trier film. His original idea was to have no transitions : Björk would just break into song. But he settled for the device of having the music and dance sequences as the moments when Selma escapes from painful reality. The dancing is consistent with the inventive style of the film. It flows naturally out of an elaboration of Björk’s spontaneous movements and body language rather than the choreographer’s independent invention. In striking contrast to these emotionally expressive moments, which Selma creates as her musical, there are recurring rehearsals for Julie Andrews’s role for an amateur production of The Sound of Music. There, Selma is pathetically wooden, unable to act, unable to sing or dance, and increasingly unable to see. Each rehearsal is an exercise in humiliation.
Dancer in the Dark is a unique achievement, but not a classic that will serve as a model for future film musicals. Directors may learn from it and be emboldened by it, but I doubt that even von Trier and Björk could or would make another. They reportedly fought with each other for three years in a titanic clash of egos, and the enterprise came close to collapse and bankruptcy. They parted on less than friendly terms and Björk refused to join von Trier on the stage when the awards were handed out at Cannes.
Björk, as von Trier now tells the story, is not an actress. She lived and experienced the role of Selma and could not turn it on and off ; he had to keep the cameras rolling for hours while she stayed in character rather than filming for minutes with breaks and retakes. The fact that she was living the role made her obstinate and difficult to direct. But it also is what gives power to von Trier’s absurd plot, and keeps the story from simply careening into farce. A young European woman told me that she sat in the theater transported and weeping, moved by this film as by nothing before. Although I did not share her reaction, I think I understand it. Dancer in the Dark is preposterous because it uses old movie clichés, and yet it is deeply moving because of Björk’s incredible performance.
Selma, a single mother and an immigrant from communist Czechoslovakia, is going blind ; her son has inherited the same condition and will go blind too unless she can pay for an expensive operation. But Selma cannot tell anyone she is going blind, she cannot ask anyone for money, and the doctor in this melodrama does not believe in using his surgical skills to save a child’s sight without being paid in advance. When, after unbelievable hardship she has saved enough for the operation, her kind neighbor, a policeman, takes advantage of her blindness to steal her money. Then in a scene both unbelievable and yet unbelievably powerful, the guilt-ridden policeman, who doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide, forces Björk to kill him to get her money back. For this “crime,” which no one understands but Selma and the audience, American justice will sentence her to the gallows. This happens in a surreal courtroom scene, where the diminutive Joel Grey, bringing with him memories of Cabaret, makes an unexpected but brilliant appearance in the most telling production number in the show.
Everything goes wrong for Selma in life and in that courtroom. She escapes into her beloved musical genre, and all the otherwise grim participants in the trial begin to dance to the tune she sings. It sounds farcical, and yet Björk and Grey make one feel the pathos—not a pathos of reality but the pathos stored in our screen memories of all those musicals that von Trier is mocking.
This melodrama does not stop in the courtroom. We follow Selma to prison, where she is befriended by a woman guard (a young Janet Reno, stern yet kind). Selma has left her twice-earned money at the clinic where her son is to have his operation. Saving his sight will complete her only purpose in life. But her uncomprehending friends discover where the money is and want to use it to pay a good lawyer to save her from execution. With all their sensible calculations about her best interests, they are ready to destroy the person they hope to save. Uncertain of the outcome, Selma sings and dances her via dolorosa to the gallows accompanied by the guard. The narrative moves inevitably to her execution with every hope of clemency failing. Then, in the moment before she dies—the vision of hope—Kathy breaks into the execution chamber to hand Selma her son’s eyeglasses ; he has had a successful operation and no longer needs them. A moment of joy and transcendence passes before the trap door opens. Von Trier’s screenplay is a string of clichés that draws its pathos from those very clichés—not from real life but from the medium it mocks.
The emotional power that makes people weep in Dancer in the Dark comes not from its truth but from its art. We weep most of all because Björk, either because she was inspired or was forced by von Trier, gives a performance unlike any other I have ever seen.