IN THE DARK
SHARI L. ROSENBLUM
and audiences take Lars von Trier too seriously. For all his aesthetic
deliberateness and political pontificating, the man has a wicked sense
of humor. Wicked and black. It's all there in the title of his latest
offering: DANCER IN THE DARK, which, by varying and progressively
bleaker degrees, describes the descending stages of the film's heroine,
Selma, a Czech emigre (Bjork) from the beginning, where we snicker as
she dances to The Sound of Music, the darkness her sort of beyond-naivete
delusion that she can escape into her fantasies; to the end, where we
gasp and fate snickers, the darkness becoming literal from within and
without, overtaking all means to escape, and a different sort of dance
stuns with its hopelessness.
Trier's humor comes out even more pronouncedly in his casting -- Bjork,
of course, with a voice and style not immediately adaptive to the average
audience, and Catherine Deneuve's diminutived de-glamourized Kathy,
David Morse's predictably typecast Bill, and even the brief appearance
of a certain television prosecutor as prosecutor in the film's one court
case. One can sense a smirk and a sneer as he attempts to engage the
musical in parody (Deneuve's mere presence evokes a subtextual commentary
on the uber lightness of such fare as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,
and certain show-stopper scenes tweak at Fred Astaire-type choreographic
incorporation of the pseudo-real), in attack (a chorus-like repetition
of "My Favorite Things" increasingly highlights the song's failure to
provide promised escape), and in revision (Bjork's appearance and musicality
both at odds with show tune expectations). Pretend to disagreeable disconnection
though he does, Von Trier pokes at the genre from an insider's perch,
and stings with the wit of a connoisseur.
the same, if Dancer in the Dark is an interesting showcase for
the other side of humor, it is still not the sort of film one recommends
indiscriminately. It is excruciatingly dull in parts, silly in ways
only aficionados of a certain experimental streak can tolerate, and
profoundly painful with an anti-cathartically insistent thud.
Filmed as stark and realistic, but for its punctuation by elaborately
unrealistic musical numbers, the set-up is in ways quite jarringly false:
a 1960s non-America anti-America mythic underbelly (with a more or less
avowed Soviet cold war spin) in a flipside portrait of idealized America
in the traditional Hollywood-in-concept musical. The main players are
as foreign in their essence as the traditional musical's all-Americans
are American. The metaphors are blunt and obvious, all about seeing,
dancing, parentage, and early exits. And the plot, in itself, reads
like a list of ideas thrown out of a soap opera festival: trauma upon
tragedy, pathos piled high.
Dancer in the Dark, in fact, requires an incalculable amount
of forgiveness, but it inspires, beyond that (if you can get beyond
that), a great sense of awe. To the extent von Trier succeeds, the effect
is brilliant. The acting is perfectly attuned to the mood -- so natural
in places that it feels improvised. Tthe characters have enough awkwardness
to make the film's awkwardness seem right.
And then - by the time it happens the audience may no longer be expecting
it - Dancer in the Dark turns out to be an astoundingly moving
film, with profound, genuine moments that reach through its calculatedly
disingenuous melodrama and take hold of your gut. Even the bizarre musical
interludes that seemed strained at first resound with unaffected poignancy.
Then we are left with a surprisingly powerful parting perspective that
doesn't let go for weeks, months, afterwards.
It is an achievement.