Gotta Sing, Gotta Suffer

Lars von Trier's beloved martyr learns a new beat in Dancer in the Dark

Just when I start thinking that the auteur theory is a load of crap and that movies reveal so much more than the sum of their director's psychoses, I see another Lars von Trier film. And I am caught and held in a snow-globe world where, over and over, humiliation falls down on female characters and, over and over, they float up as beloved martyrs. Within that globe, von Trier's women seem to choose their humiliations as protests against some social order--although their martyrdom always rises out of sacrifice for a male character. Outside the globe, von Trier amuses himself by turning his toy this way, then that, meting out, in turn, degradation, bliss, degradation, bliss.

With Dancer in the Dark, which makes a masochist of formerly intrepid Icelandic singer Björk, von Trier's fetishistic plot has taken over to the point of tedium. Whatever I felt about Breaking the Waves, I can't say I was ever bored. The final third of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour Dancer in the Dark, however, is crushingly monotonous, mostly because there's not much to it, save the extended humiliation of the protagonist. If I could, I'd impose a decree--the Sutton vs. von Trier Act--under which the director was allowed to fashion films only from other people's scripts (those vetted by an outside consultant not fitting the von Trier psychological profile). I say this because the guy produces startlingly gorgeous cinema--the more artificial, the better, for all his anti-artifice rants with his Dogme pals. (And don't tell me The Idiots' jump cuts and from-the-hip digital-video flailings aren't artifice.) If he weren't so good so often, he wouldn't make me so mad.

The delights of Dancer in the Dark stem from the juxtaposition of Czech immigrant Selma's laborious life and rapidly diminishing vision with the Technicolor musical fantasies she directs in her head. Selma (Björk) has come to Washington State in the early Sixties with a secret: She has a hereditary disease that will soon blind her. Her goal is to raise money so that her son Gene (Vladica Kostic), who also has the disease, can have an operation to save his sight. Selma works at an anonymous factory and inserts pins into packages in her off hours. As her sight deteriorates, she becomes more attuned to sound: The pounding and huffing of a factory machine or a train present a rhythm to her, and suddenly--in her imagination, but before our eyes--she's singing and dancing with various extras to "Catch Me When I Fall."

These musical sequences, like the more static chapter headings in Breaking the Waves, are miraculous creations. Von Trier and his Waves cinematographer Robby Müller (who also works regularly with Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders) saturate the frames with color, flinging rich crimsons, emeralds, and sapphires into their otherwise somber palette. Choreographer Vincent Paterson helped place 100 digital-video cameras in and around each scene, which was then captured in one take; the film seems to dance with the dancers. For this fan of Björk's distinctive keening, her compositions here are great rafts of feeling in an orchestral trip-hop style. Perhaps because she's a singer and not an actor, Björk's face and body express volumes more in these grand music videos than they do when she confronts the drama outside Selma's head.

And maybe that's von Trier's message: Selma sets herself free only in her daydreams. But I believe the tale's a bit more twisted than that. In her visions, Selma is beloved and confident; in her "reality," she's increasingly oppressed and panicked. The raw treatment is born of her secret sacrifice: Gene, for instance, doesn't know why his mother has to be frugal, so he's sullen, rebellious. Selma won't explain to him--or anyone--because she thinks her son will somehow worry himself into early blindness. This flimsy, arbitrary setup establishes how little Selma's selflessness will be honored in the "real" world.

Selma does have admiring friends: her fellow factory worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve, who actually acts), her would-be suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare), and the couple from whom she rents a trailer, Bill (David Morse) and Linda (Cara Seymour). She has told them all that she's sending money to her papa in Czechoslovakia. It's telling, though, that when Selma shares her real plight with one of those friends, she's instantly betrayed. She's damned if she suffers quietly, and damned if she does not. Indeed, the writer-director distorts his plot into absurdity, ensuring that his heroine stays on track to doom. When Selma's betrayer "forces" her to kill him--and hence destroy herself--she cries out: "Don't do this to me!" She might as well be pleading with that other betrayer: von Trier.

In Waves and Dancer (and, to a lesser extent, The Idiots), von Trier redeems his heroine's sacrifices at the same time that they make him (and us) queasy. In an endless trial scene, Selma envisions herself as the star of a musical number with Joel Grey; outside the fantasy the scene is tragic, but she is still the star (still playing opposite Grey). A prosecuting attorney calls her "a fundamentally selfish individual"--and we're supposed to scoff and feel sorry for Selma. At the same time, a salient connection has been made between martyrdom and selfishness. For his part, the director backs away from that association. But I left the movie raging at the unholy burden bestowed on the ostensible beneficiaries of "noble" sacrifice--a burden the film never acknowledges.

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