The Independent On Sunday

Preview : Human Behaviour

Dancer in the Dark leaves no room for indifference. I was present at its first public screening, at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, when the audience erupted into factional cheering and booing. Had I not found myself so caught up in its harrowing pleasures, I would have been doing the latter—which is what I told a roomful of critics at a party that night, who all thought the film a trashy indulgence and subtly suggested that I was something of an idiot for falling for it. I explained this to its director, Lars von Trier, in an interview a few weeks later. “Well,” he rumbled, “perhaps you are an idiot.”

Melodrama, I’ll concede, is offensive to some, and it would be hard to imagine a film more melodramatic than this. It’s the story of Selma the mill-girl (Björk) who bumbles through her job at a steel-pressing plant, knowing that her failing eyesight is a danger to herself and her colleagues (who include Peter Stormare and Catherine Deneuve). She sticks at it, however, because her son suffers from the same hereditary eye condition, and if she can’t scrimp enough to pay for the operation, then little Gene (what else ?) will go into the same kind of darkness. The plan goes horribly wrong. And for the latter half of the picture, von Trier takes her arm—and yours—as Selma goes singing all the way to her destruction.

There’s mercilessness in the way that the film closes in upon its heroine. It traps her, cages her, and snuffs her out. And the shooting of the film followed a similar path. Björk had trouble teasing herself out of the role at the end of each day. When it all became too much, she skittered off into the woods and bit chunks out of her costume. Everybody else went a little crazy, too. Von Trier, I suspect, was quietly delighted. He directs her as if she was some untrustworthy animal captured in foreign parts ; she responds in kind.

I’m not going to tell you that you’ll love it. You might not even like the songs, though they’re in the grand film musical tradition. When Catherine Deneuve warbled her way through pregnancy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or the principals of Singin’ in the Rain toppled the crepuscular sofa, they didn’t require a dramaturgical excuse for bursting into song. They just did it. What’s more, they made their audiences ache for the ability to transform mundane experiences—walking home in the rain, wishing a colleague good morning, saving up some hard-earned dollars—into thickly coloured production numbers. It’s the same desire that haunts Selma. It will haunt you, too, if it doesn’t make you throw up.

Matthew Sweet

publié dans The Independent On Sunday - 17.11.2002

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