Friday, April 01, 2016
Director/writer: Lars von Trier
Photography: Robby Muller
Editors: Francois Gedigier, Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Bjork, David Morse, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour, Joel Grey, Vincent Paterson, Jean-Marc Barr, Vladica Kostic, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, Siobhan Fallon Hogan
On one sardonic level, it's all too possible to take this mordant plum as director and writer Lars von Trier's homage to The Sound of Music. Dancer in the Dark, after all, celebrates all musicals and that musical specifically as just about the one dim source of light in a narrative trajectory that hurtles vertiginously toward darkness. Iceland singer/songwriter, pop experimentalist, and charming weirdo Bjork capably plays Selma Jezkova, a Czech immigrant to the US, who is living and working a factory job in Washington state in the mid-'60s. She's a single mother, and she is going blind from a congenital disease. She is living in a rented space and friendly with the couple she rents from. Her one aim in life is to save the money for a surgical procedure that will prevent her son from going blind in turn—he has inherited the same condition from her.
What's that got to do with The Sound of Music? Glad you asked. Selma loves musicals and for most of this movie is rehearsing the part of Maria in a community production of the venerable lumbering Rodgers & Hammerstein chestnut. Its songs are interwoven into the action, wryly commenting on it at points. It's easy to miss its pervasive lurking presence because it's overshadowed by the numerous outbreaks of Bjork videos. Typically enough for von Trier, Dancer in the Dark is a movie that is going to two extremes at once (emphasis on "extreme"): a heartbreaking story of a victim of soulless predators, call it a '50s style woman's picture, and a musical which reserves all rights for playful fantasy. The result is bewildering, to say the least.
It's of a piece with much of von Trier's work since approximately Breaking the Waves, starting from, staying close to, and never straying far from a brave and foolish human being who also happens to be a woman, suffering the agonies and indignities of being a woman. Here the woman is economically disadvantaged by her citizenship status, physically disadvantaged by her encroaching blindness, and she doesn't seem altogether that bright either, though that could be a defensive posture to compensate for her social vulnerabilities. She herself admits that she "daydreams too much," slipping into reveries of songs from the musicals she loves. But it's not fair to call her simple or some other euphemism, because she appears to be happy within herself, and accomplishing that is far from simple, let alone sign of developmental disability.
Selma's landlord couple, Bill (David Morse) and Linda (Cara Seymour), are living beyond their means, a fact that Bill is hiding from Linda. When Bill learns that Selma has been saving cash for her son's operation he wants to borrow it "just for a month." Things start to go in the noir directions you can imagine. The movie, which is too long at nearly two and a half hours, putters along establishing its characters and premise for the first hour or so. Then it all starts to go very bad. Interestingly, that is also more or less when the Bjork videos get most intense. I count some half-dozen or more of them in the movie, but the second is only in the vicinity of that one-hour mark. That's the day when Selma loses her job, finds her money has been stolen, and learns Bill has told Linda that she (Selma) has been coming on to him. Linda wants Selma to move out immediately.
And that's not even a fraction of it yet. This is a collapse of life circumstances that is more like the biblical Job story than any kind of sad story most of us are used to. It's von Trier, yes, and movies like this are where he has earned his reputation. For the second half, specific episodes are ground down to excruciating crawls. In my notes, "this is too much" appears for the scene following Linda's confrontation with Selma, and it only goes on from there: a courtroom trial absurd as anything dreamed by Kafka, a death sentence, awaiting her execution, the final walk, the final song and dance, the final bow, the final curtain. Each seems longer and more drawn-out and perverse than the last in this monumental orgasm of anguish.
In the end, I'm really not sure how well it wears. I was stunned by the narrative arc the first time I saw it, and by the carefully orchestrated final scenes and images. The Bjork videos seemed so strange and out of context, playing to sensibilities numbed by narrative events ongoing, that I didn't know what to make of them. Bjork's music has always been amiable enough by me, and some of it I like enough to own. Seeing Dancer in the Dark again more recently, however, I think maybe this is a movie that works for me best as a one and done. Its broad strokes and effects wear thin, though nuances of performance, editing, and general musical stagecraft continue to speak to the talent brought to bear. But it's a very strange exercise, pitting those two extremes of woman's picture and musical against one another in such unnatural ways. The jarring discordances are all I come away with.