Variagate

Cinema Signals

In a recent interview, the 35 year old Icelandic singer, songwriter and, now, actress, Björk (Guðmundsdóttir) is quoted as saying that this is the first and last movie she’ll ever act in ; that acting is just words, words ; that she was far more interested in how her songs and music came across than her acting. So... what does this kind of “attitude” portend for the movie ? Or... is it “attitude” ?

She plays Selma Jezkova, a simple, naive soul, a woman with an inherited disease that degenerates eyesight (the “Dark” of the title), a mother who realizes that her son is the unknowing recipient of the same affliction. She has left her native Czechoslovakia for the United States where she is sure she’ll be able to get medical treatment that will save him from the loss of his eyesight. To that end, she toils and toils, scratching out savings week by week, dollar by dollar, for her son’s operation.

Barely able to see, she seems headed for tragedy as her work operating a punch press machine becomes dangerous. But her fixation on earning enough to pay the doctor doesn’t allow her to recognize her own physical and mental limitations and the danger they pose. Instead, she fakes an eye exam in order to continue working. She even pursues doubling her shift. Obsessed, she turns away all sensible advice from her friends. She is her own worst enemy.

The film is part musical and anyone considering this movie should be forewarned. Musical scenes are interjected throughout (the “Dancer” of the title) presumably to convey Selma’s fertile Hollywoodized imaginings and dreams.

The theme of this movie seems to be people making decisions against their own interests, and this theme is conveyed so thoroughly both in front of the camera and behind, as to be organic. The pattern begins with Lars von Trier, the director of the film, himself. Trier appoints himself the camera operator and this is as tragic a choice as any given to his heroine. His camera operating style is the most annoying part of what’s wrong with his films as its intrusiveness rises with the depth of emotion of the scene. Consequently, (and I do mean as a consequence) when Selma (Björk) suffers an accident, or when she confronts her betrayer, and during other highly emotional moments, Trier’s camera is so close that you don’t see the actor’s entire face and it’s out of focus ! Moreover, Trier thinks it’s good technique to pan from one character to another as each talks, editing the scene in the camera a la home movies. My advice to anyone seeing this film is to take a dramamine before entering the theater.

Blinded to the hysterical effect of his camerawork, no less than Selma is being blinded by her disease and her obsession, the principle storyteller is his own worst enemy as much as she is in the drama. And, as Selma is prodded by her friends (Catherine Deneuve most notably) to make life saving decisions even as she condemns herself, Trier needs to be prodded to benefit his films by putting his camera in the hands of a professional, trained camera operator so as to allow himself to concentrate on the work of directing.

That having been said, I hasten to add that, while Trier’s approach to a visual style is amateurish and while he can’t tell a story without gross exaggerations of reality, his great gift is in the performances he wrests from his actors. It’s no accident that Emily Watson won an academy award for her work with him in “Breaking the Waves”. And, it’s no accident that Björk’s performance is so numbingly true and devastating in “Dancing in the Dark”. In spite of working with a camera up her nose, she has delivered in this, her first film, a job of acting that is in a class of its own !

One might ask, where does she get this from ? From whom did she learn to convey fear so totally that you gasp in anguish for her human frailty ? How did she play blindness so convincingly ? There are natural actors and there are technical actors, but this is a stunning example of totality of commitment, of living a part, of a deep absorption into the conditions of a character whatever they may be. We’ll just have to explain the wonder of it as the magic of creative inspiration that some people are invested with. In any case, with a quarter of a year left and, perhaps, with the best of the year’s films and acting performances ahead, I’m ready to commit to Björk’s deserving of a Best Actress Oscar for the year 2000.

Does Björk mean it when she says she never wants to act again ? I have a theory about this. I believe that the actress, working without benefit of training and experience (except for the acting inherent in singing), relying instead upon instinct and personal gift, has not yet gotten her character out of her mind. The statements she made are the kind that Selma might be making—as though her alter ego doesn’t know how to quit. When she says she had little interest in her acting in the film, despite such a commitment of mind and body to it, she clearly is speaking against her own interests. Outside the film !

Chalk it up to newness in the discipline. Training helps an actor separate the part from the self. Björk may be experiencing difficulty in that. I hope so because if it’s true, she only has to refocus on her singing/ songwriting artistry, getting away from Selma, to put the experience back into perspective. I pray she acts again, and again has the ability to abandon herself so completely into a part. Her performance was a joy to watch and the experience has not escaped my own consciousness days later. I think it’s now a permanent part of my interior landscape along with Meryl Streep as Sophie.

David Morse does his usual fine work as Selma’s erstwhile benefactor. He’s an interesting choice for a Trier male lead after Stellan Starsgard (who plays the minor role of the doctor in this).

Björk’s band is the Sugarcubes. She composed the music for “Dancer in the Dark”, which won the Palme d’Or prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Björk won the Best Actress prize. The film is 140 minutes.

Jules Brenner

publié dans Variagate - 01.01.2003

 

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