the Dark directed
by Lars von Trier
Cinema has been dying for
a very long time–no doubt since the moment someone thought to anoint movies
as an art–and we all love a good death scene. Around the time he filmed
Jean-Paul Belmondo thrashing like a stuck flounder on the Paris pavements at
the end of Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard opined that his crowd, the young
creators of the French New Wave, were only recognizing that the kinds of movies
they really loved could no longer be made, that they had already passed into
history. Their own movies, Godard suggested, were a way of mourning.
The main difference between
Godard circa 1960 and Denmark’s Lars von Trier circa 2000, one might say,
lies in what is being mourned. Godard’s generation mainly mourned American
genre films like musicals and gangster movies (which together comprised an emblem
of cinema’s Eden, its unrecapturable innocence) and in doing so, they created
the modernist European art film. Von Trier, in his recent work, and perhaps
his work as a whole, mourns the passing of that very same mod.Euro.art.film,
although duller-witted viewers of his Dancer in the Dark will be forgiven
for thinking that he’s paying tribute to the bygone genre of the musical.
Speaking of the dull- (and
otherwise-) witted, the two esthetic transitions noted above can’t be fully
appraised without reference to audiences. The New Wave’s films reflected
a viewer, French and worldwide, that had moved or was moving, moviewise, from
innocence to knowingness, the latter being defined as an understanding that
invested cinema with the discriminations of classical culture, modernist literature,
etc. In retrospect this movement can easily be seen as the valiant last stand
of mass upperbrowism, aka book-smartness, in the West. In any case, the movement
implied by von Trier’s films runs in exactly the opposite direction: its
viewer, having swallowed that old knowingness whole, imagines himself smart
even as he rapidly grows dumber and dumber–i.e., uneducated in anything
but pop "culture" and therefore increasingly incapable of meaningful
At the moment a prime emblem
of this postmodern puerility is Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music.
I don’t mean that the estimable movie is puerile; for anyone who may care,
it’s the studio system’s last great musical and easily one of the
best Hollywood films of the 60s, a bad decade for Hollywood films. But Wise’s
expertly sticky-sweet songfest has lately turned into a fetish object for people
desperate to feel superior to pop entertainments while remaining in abject,
simpering thrall to same.
The phenomenon comes to
us from–where else?–dimmest England, where the sport of travestying
The Sound of Music in costume and song last year became a fad among,
as the Times noted recently, an audience of gay men and middle-aged women.
Now, I would submit that such localized silliness in itself is no proof of cultural
collapse. What worries me is when it gets a cheery endorsement from the Anglofools
at The New Yorker, and, worse, 20th Century-Fox rereleases the movie
as a campified "singalong"–apparently incognizant that most filmgoers
would be happy to take it, shall we say, straight, and indeed that the studio
could make mountains of money with a carefully managed, noncampy revival.
Dancer in the Dark
inhabits the same murky terrain. In opening with a scene in which its protagonist,
played by the singer Bjork, is rehearsing a small-town stage production of The
Sound of Music, the film announces its appeal to people whose identities
are bound up with things like snickering at the Wise movie. (Go to any show
of Dancer and you’re sure to hear their fatuous, idiotic chortles.)
Yet if this indicates certain of the newer film’s limitations, it doesn’t
describe its totality. Because Dancer is also for people who’re
bothered by anyone’s urge to sneer at old-style pop innocence.
Shot by Robby Mueller in
widescreen digital video, von Trier’s film (using the term figuratively)
features Bjork as Selma, a Czech immigrant to the U.S. who works in a rural
factory making stainless-steel sinks. Rapidly going blind, she’s determined
to save money to pay for an operation to save her son, Gene, from the same fate.
But fate has some nasty surprises in store. Selma’s creepy landlord Bill
(David Morse) swipes her savings, and in trying to recover them, she commits
a crime that can send her to the death house. The only compensation to all this
kitchen-sink dreariness, it turns out, is that Selma’s mind occasionally
drifts into a place where her life’s transformed into a big, splashy movie
Although obviously influenced
by self-conscious latter-day Euro musicals like Jacques Demy’s and Dennis
Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, Dancer stands apart with a
unique trademark: its thorough, painstaking ludicrousness. Not only is the story
sheer, unvarnished pulp bathos (like Titanic, its plot might have come
from a penny-dreadful of a century ago) but everything surrounding it is similarly
hootable. The tale’s characters, mostly American, are played by the Euro
likes of Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour and Jean-Marc Barr.
America itself, meanwhile, is played by a Swedish soundstage decked out as an
armchair gauchiste’s vision of current redneck-proletarian abjection.
Von Trier unquestionably
deserves credit for the puckish wit in all this. Unlike the makers of the deeply
stupid Rosetta, he doesn’t pose the setting’s Marxist fantasy
as something to be taken seriously; he knows it’s every bit as goofy as
having la grande Deneuve play a blowsy backwoods factory worker named Kathy.
Yet one must also allow that the entertainment value of such fancies is too
conceptual to be more than very occasionally rib-tickling. And Dancer
undeniably suffers from being overlong and raggedly focused; we sit through
a lot of dull exposition before those bouncy, color-enhanced musical numbers
come to the rescue.
Still, simple entertainment
isn’t really what’s at stake here. The film’s central conceit
is a gamble. Von Trier says to viewers: "I know all these dumb, hokey conventions
are past redemption. But watch. I’ll take them and push them beyond the
pale, make them as stupid, ludicrous and unbelievable as I can, and I’ll
still get you. I’ll make your heart leap at the musical numbers, and I’ll
make you cry in the end." And damn if he doesn’t win this wager, which
leaves him looking like an artist rather than the chump you half expected.
Though the remaining question–so
what?–isn’t easily answered, the film’s execution sticks to the
mind like a hummable tune. Von Trier shot the musical numbers with 100 digital
cameras going at once, adding to the impression that his main talent is for
stunts, yet the dancing and choreography do hold their own against the technology.
The best thing about the entire movie, though, is Bjork, who sings like a heavenly
chorister, holds the camera like a total natural and wrote a pack of great songs
to which von Trier and Sjon Sigurdsson added the lyrics. Give this woman an
Oscar, say I.
Perhaps the main drawback
to the whole enterprise is that, in its story of a stainless-hearted woman driven
to the depths by the cruel, cruel world, Dancer so closely resembles
Breaking the Waves, the director’s international breakthrough of
four years ago. Was von Trier, you wonder, so desperate to win the Palme d’Or
at Cannes (which Dancer predictably captured) that he was willing to
stoop to calculated self-imitation? Has he totally run out of ideas?
Let us be charitable and
allow that Dancer may be a purposeful companion piece to Waves,
one that reminds us of the other half of the art film’s European-American
heritage. Much as Waves obsessed on von Trier’s Danish forebear
Carl Theodor Dreyer, the new film fixates on the world of Busby Berkeley, Vincente
Minnelli and Gene Kelly. The latter terrain, though, it sees through the same
distanced glass once employed by Godard and company, the prism of European analytic
estheticism and romantic self-projection.
Both Waves and Dancer
wonder, with a half-mocking, half-serious concern, what comes after belief,
which for many Europeans of recent vintage has meant God or cinema, or sometimes
both. The problem is, the question only means something if there’s a memory
that belief actually mattered, or a sense that it might again. And von Trier
ultimately seems unable convince himself that content of any sort is ever more
than frivolous. All that’s left, not surprisingly, are giddy stunts, fanciful
formal gestures and a slight, nagging feeling that something crucial has been