In the “love it or hate it” category of films, renegade Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s works form a messy little subgroup all their own.
From his hyperstylized international breakthrough ZENTROPA to his influential experiments with handheld video drama in BREAKING THE WAVES and THE IDIOTS, the world’s most dangerous director has displayed a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for provoking extreme responses from viewers : delight, revulsion, anger—often in the same scene. Like certain tonics, his films can be bitter draughts to swallow, but many imbibers are left with the feeling that the long-term effect is good for them.
Von Trier’s ongoing assault on moviegoers continues with DANCER IN THE DARK, a wrenching variation of the tragic fable territory he explored in BREAKING THE WAVES. Like his earlier film, DANCER juxtaposes dramatic scenes of almost unbearable intimacy with more formally styled sections that both break up and comment on the action. In BREAKING THE WAVES, the wild-card element was a series of cranked-up landscape images set to soaring ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll—God’s view of things, the director explained. In DANCER, he detours from the central storyline for idiosyncratic musical numbers reflecting the interior struggles of his heroine, played unforgettably by Icelandic pop siren Björk.
Supposedly set in Washington state in the ‘60s (and actually filmed in a weirdly non-American-looking Sweden), the loose-jointed plot follows Björk’s Czech immigrant Selma as she grinds through a bleak existence as a factory laborer, finding relief only in song-and-dance daydreams inspired by her beloved Hollywood musicals. A single burning obsession keeps her going : scraping together enough cash to pay for the operation that could save her young son from the inherited blindness that is claiming her own vision. Then an unlucky chain of events involving her cop landlord (David Morse) and his materialistic wife (Cara Seymour) threatens to undo all Selma has worked so hard to accomplish.
As in BREAKING THE WAVES and THE IDIOTS, von Trier shoots the dramatic sections in the unadorned, shaky-camcorder manner that is the trademark of the no-frills “Dogme 95” movement he co-founded in Denmark. (Moviegoing tip : Don’t sit too close to the screen unless you are immune to motion sickness— the combination of the spastic camerawork and the scenes’ emotional intensity can be vomit-inducing.) He takes a very different tack in the whimsical, Björk-composed musical numbers, which were taped with 100 remote video cameras placed at every conceivable angle. Between Björk’s haunting, industrial-edged tunes, the off-kilter choreography and the low-res MTV visuals, these segments overload the senses with their dizzying energy—think Gene Kelly on ecstasy.
When von Trier is at his best, as he is in the shockingly staged central death scene or when milking Selma’s near-blindness for suspense value in the dangerous factory environment, his ability to subvert audience expectations and pummel us into submission with his fevered imagination is astonishing. Unfortunately, the film’s considerable early momentum is undercut somewhat by weak plotting in the too-long last act—part of the reason the complete opus clocks in at a punishing 140 minutes. Knowing how much is too much isn’t a von Trier strong point.
Björk dominates the proceedings with her spectacularly quirky feature film debut, which earned her a best-actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Her eccentric presence is equally bewitching whether engaged in drama or—on more familiar ground—the elaborately staged musical numbers. She gets predictably strong support from a world-class cast of supporting players, including the easy-to-watch Morse (THE GREEN MILE) in an effective twist on his familiar nice-guy persona, an almost-convincingly deglamorized Catherine Deneuve (INDOCHINE) as a concerned co-worker and Swedish character actor Peter Stormare (FARGO) as an offbeat potential love interest.
While it never comes together as powerfully as the better-focused BREAKING THE WAVES, DANCER IN THE DARK packs more bold ideas into the average scene than some American directors do their entire filmographies. Whether individual moviegoers will be able to physically withstand its sometimes- frustrating, lopsided brilliance is another story. But love it or loathe it, there’s never been anything quite like it in all of cinema.