Breaking the Girl
'Dancer in the Dark' suffers from von Trier's arrogance
By Patrick Reed

All hands on Björk

Danish writer-director Lars von Trier spent the 1980s and half of the 90s nipping at the heels of American art-house audiences, creating a series of visually distinctive, unsettling, and defiantly idiosyncratic exports from the old continent (most prominently, 1984's The Element of Crime and 1990's Zentropa) that culminated with the international success of Breaking the Waves. Released in 1996, and featuring an emotionally draining central performance by Emily Watson as Bess, an innocent soul defiled by all humankind, Breaking the Waves' account of sexual sacrifice in a 1970s remote coastal outpost of Scotland was audacious almost to the point of disbelief. Love it or loathe it, Breaking the Waves is the rare film that remains lodged in the brain long after the credits roll; the final images of Bess' passage are truly affecting in their unabashed insistence on a higher calling.

Following Waves' breakthrough, von Trier predictably thumbed his nose at all of the establishment-generated accolades and, for a while, focused his attention on Dogma 95, an avant-garde collective he founded. With the release of Dancer in the Dark, von Trier unveils enough misery to make Waves seem like a preliminary test run. Using the Icelandic alterna-pop singer Björk as his new flesh-and-blood muse (or crash-test dummy, take your pick) Dancer in the Dark reaffirms von Trier's commitment to exploring the depths of melodrama on film, and to exposing the rawest nerves of an audience's collective response.

Dancer in the Dark won the Palme d'Or (best picture) at Cannes last spring, as well as a Best Actress award for Björk, yet the film polarized viewers on the French Riviera and has had the same effect here in the U.S.

Björk stars as Selma, a Czech immigrant to rural Washington state during the early 1960s. Dancer's story is propelled by Selma's struggle to save enough money to pay for an operation for her son Gene (Vladan Kostic), in order to spare him from the same genetic eyesight disease that is rapidly afflicting Selma. To do this, she slaves as a press operator at a metal sink factory, where she is protected by co-worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and doted on by a listless handyman named Jeff (Peter Stormare, Fargo) every day after work.

Selma and her son live on land owned by a policeman named Bill (David Morse), whose wife (Cara Seymour) is rapidly squandering their savings. In her rare spare time, despite her declining vision, Selma watches classic Hollywood musicals with Kathy and bravely rehearses for a role in the local amateur production of The Sound of Music. Selma's quest to pay for her son's operation soon clashes with the dire financial situation of her landlord, when during an intimate (and as filmed, downright uncomfortable) conversation with Selma, Bill learns of her secret money stash and of her blindness.

If this preamble appears bleak for Selma, rest assured that von Trier's deck of cards is stacked so heavily against this ingénue, previous tragic celluloid heroines from Stella Dallas to even Joan of Arc fare splendidly by comparison. And while Breaking the Waves took place in an isolated and self-contained community of religious zealots - thus granting Bess's tale of woe at least a smidgen of credibility - the institutions presented here (the factory, the judicial system, the prison) are so disconnected from reality (even for postwar America, circa 1964) that they threaten to undermine von Trier's elevation of Selma as a martyr-in-the-making. (And Catherine Deneuve as an industrial laborer? Anyone familiar with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [1964], Belle de Jour [1967], or, gasp, Cat People [1982] will have a difficult time accepting this premise.)

Dancer's jittery hand-held camerawork, muddy color, and seemingly-improvised dialogue carry over from Waves as well, but somewhere in the middle of this film it becomes apparent that, American setting or not, von Trier is intent on establishing an alternate universe for his morality play; he is throwing down the gauntlet once again to his audience, demanding emotional investment and suspension of disbelief, and then ratcheting up the intensity while exercising his manipulative tendencies. Selma's desire to escape into the eternal bliss of Hollywood musicals leads von Trier to create Dancer's own strange musical sequences (Spike Jonze's 1995 video for Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet" had higher production values and sleeker choreography). These interludes feature Björk cavorting and singing as only she can, and are the best parts of the picture; once or twice, they even approach the sort of off-kilter, otherwordly vibe expressed to perfection in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955). Ultimately Dancer In the Dark, due more to Björk's naturalistic and charming performance than anything else, still retains enough power to roil the emotions - even if, unlike Breaking the Waves, this time von Trier's arrogance outstrips his ambition.