Screaming success at the scaffold

The Guardian , 17 mai 2000

Lars Von Trier’s latest movie extravaganza polarised critics, but Fiachra Gibbons loved it. He reports exclusively from Cannes

In Scandinavia they referred to Breaking the Waves as Breaking the Wives, and film-maker Lars Von Trier is at it again with Dancer in the Dark, putting his women through the full range of physical and psychological horror with such an unwavering gaze that at times it’s hard to sit there and watch. This will be the film that goes down in history for its heroine singing from a scaffold. The final, almost unbearable scene in which Björk’s blind criminal is marched the 107 steps from the condemned cell to the gallows makes for the movie’s most bizarre and gut-wrenching song and dance number. When she cannot stand up, she is strapped to an upright board where she sings—or, more accurately, Björks—while we wait to hear whether the authorities will allow a blind woman to be hanged without a hood because “she just can’t breathe with one on”.

Boasting a motif from The Sound of Music, Dancer in the Dark is the most unusual, extraordinary feel-good musical ever made—but you may have guessed that already. The critics in attendance at the screening were either visibly moved or not so much booing as hissing or bellowing with rage. Never have I seen a reaction like this to a film, and never have those reactions been so shockingly divided.

Björk—who Von Trier had branded a ‘mad woman’ only a fortnight ago after she tried to block its screening because of cuts to her score—refused to appear alongside him and her co-star, the legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, to answer questions. However, she did attend last night’s gala screening in Cannes.

Björk’s spokeswoman said she was “too frightened” by the attention he performance had attracted, and Deneuve disclosed that she was so traumatised by the experience of playing the part of Selma, a Czech immigrant in fifties America, that she may not be able to talk about it for another 10 years.

Von Trier, who has admitted to being a tyrant, made no attempt to play down their rift, which culminated in her storming off the set for four days. She is also said to have tried to eat her costume in a fit of rage.

Asked what it was like to work with Björk, he replied, “It has been terrible but the results have been incredible. Björk is not an actor. What was a surprise for me is that she seemed like a professional but she really isn’t. She is not acting in this film but feeling everything, which is extremely hard on her and everyone else too. It was like being with a dying person. She was really feeling it all the time. I was in the awkward position of being the hangman who was pushing her towards her death. But it is the only way it could have been done.”

Van Trier, who is so scared of flying he drove from Denmark in his camper van, said despite their differences he admired her performance. “I am extremely fond of the work she has done and I would like to thank her for it.”

Deneuve, who formed a close bond with Björk during the filming, and spent New Year in Iceland with her, did not deny the tension with Björk on the set. “But it would be very perverse with such a very special film to give such importance to something behind the scenes. Nothing that is really worth it goes without difficulties, without tension, without crying,” she said. “The more difficult and intense a film the more painful it is. Björk is very special. She cannot really act, she can only feel. Some of the situations in the film are so hard, and she was in so much pain, she could not recover from one day to the other. Those things made her behave sometimes like a child, like a human being who couldn’t take it anymore. Like a child running out of school, sometimes she would run away. But when you compare that to the level of her performance in the film those things become so little.”

She said it was most the most ‘extreme’ experience of film-making she had ever been through, but she found it “worth every minute. It was incredible what has been done.”

Von Trier, who founded the Dogma style of simple, pared back film-making, and is regarded as a major force in world cinema, joked that he hoped to cast Deneuve, who famously played a prostitute in Belle du Jour, in his next project, a porn film. “She knows many things about the world that I don’t,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I feel empty.”

Despite the movie’s torrid production, Björk is a revelation as Selma, a Czech immigrant with failing sight, a kind of innocent, who goes to her death to save others and in particular her son. In a supporting role, Catherine Deneuve has never looked more human, while the song-and-dance sequences—which owe a lot to the Eastern European musicals of the 50s and 60s—are beautiful. Without giving too much away, you cannot help but be affected by this film. It leaves you feeling that you don’t know what you feel. As with the other key Von Trier pictures (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots), you are left with the sense that you are either in the presence of genius or have been manipulated by a cruel and cynical con-man.

From the ecstatic ovation given to Von Trier at a press conference afterwards, it is clear that many critics will be angry if the film does not win the Palme d’Or, although with opinions so divided they may also be protests if he does.

• Security in Cannes, already extremely tight, with hundreds of riot police and gendarmes deployed all over the town, has been stepped up even further after a series of muggings and break-ins in the backstreets behind the beachfront Croisette where most of the star-studded parties are held. Local police admitted that gangs of thieves had descended on the resort for the festival. Two British women, two Swedes and an American were all mugged on Tuesday evening and there had been ‘opportunist’ thieves working the main hotels too.

• Meanwhile, Derek Malcolm, who has written for the Guardian for 35 years, was yesterday presented with a medal - for his services to cinema—by the retiring Cannes president Gilles Jacob. He said Malcolm was “one of the world’s most distinguished critics”

par Fiachra Gibbons publié dans The Guardian