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 thatindigo-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,
The first assault is leveled at his heroine, Selma, who is played by
the Icelandic rock star Bjork. 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
Bjork will here de-cosmeticize.
Von Trier begins by literally depriving Bjork 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 Bjork 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 Bjork 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 Bjork 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
Bjork'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 Bjork 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 Bjork'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."
Katherine 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 Bjork's ugliness. The film belongs to Bjork,
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 Bjork's beauty that you will
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:
Bjork 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 Bjork'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
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
Bjork 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 Bjork refused to join von Trier on the stage when the awards
were handed out at Cannes.
Bjork, 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 Bjork'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 Bjork 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 Bjork 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
Bjork, either because she was inspired or was forced by von Trier, gives
a performance unlike any other I have ever seen. •
For more film reviews by Alan Stone,
click here or choose from
a list of