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Friday, Dec. 22, 2000

'DANCER IN THE DARK'

Von Trier's triumph or travesty?

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "Some reasonable people will admire Lars von Trier's 'Dancer in the Dark' and others will despise it. An excellent case can be made for both positions."

So in that spirit we present this double-take: First the negative view by Giovanni Fazio, and then the positive side by Kaori Shoji. Finally, a neutral plot summary is also offered.

Arrogant, misguided work By GIOVANNI FAZIO The hills are alive . . . with the sound of booing, a response that greeted "Dancer in the Dark" at its debut at the Cannes International Film Festival, and has followed it since, despite the awards it took. "Dancer" is such an uneven, arrogant and misguided work, that to list all its sins this review would run on into Saturday's pages. So let's just start with the obvious: This is a musical about a factory-worker.

Pardon me if I seem naive, but I always thought musicals were about glamour, costumes, escapism, love and maybe a few cats, but certainly not simple-minded assembly-line workers in frumpy dresses with incurable diseases who end up on death row.

Of course, one could say that von Trier is trying to "subvert" the musical genre, by deliberately eschewing the genre's tropes. Aaaah, but such tactics are decidedly postmodern and calculated, and do not make good bedfellows with the director's simultaneous desire to tell a story so simplistic that it could have been lifted from Little Orphan Annie.

Actually, it was lifted from a children's book: "Dancer" is the third in von Trier's "Golden Heart" trilogy (following "Breaking the Waves" and "The Idiots"), all inspired by a picture-book he read as a child. "Golden Heart" was a fable about a kind-hearted little girl who sets out alone through the woods and -- through sharing all she owns -- ends up penniless and bare, but still somehow full of hope.

The simplicity of fables works better in Disney cartoons, though, than in postmodern films for adult audiences on hot topics such as intolerance and capital punishment. In fact, the arrogantly confident von Trier seems to be daring the viewer to resist the story's inanities (the disease that must be treated by age 13, the protracted death scene, the ludicrous trial proceedings) so that he can still manipulate us emotionally.

Yet while von Trier expects us to submit mindlessly to the dubious pleasures of maudlin melodrama, he also demands that we reject both the idea of a musical being any fun, and -- in line with his Dogma principles -- the pleasures of craft. You know, those horrible excesses like tracking-shots and focus. In his Dogma manifesto, von Trier mandated a move away from glossy professionalism in favor of a raw, hand-held up-close urgency. This faux-verite style might have matched the material in "Breaking the Waves," but it doesn't sit well next to the fantasy elements that lace "Dancer."

Moreover, this back-to-basics philosophy clashes with the director's use of 100 digital video cameras to shoot the musical scenes! On top of this, idiot-savant editing chops his carefully choreographed dance sequences to shreds, removing whatever rhythm or flow they may have originally contained.

I'm all for directors using whatever technique serves the film best, but to espouse a strict filmmaking philosophy one week, and then toss it out the next, makes it very hard to take von Trier seriously. His Dogma rule that the director should never be credited has yet to be honored, while another rule eschewing the use of soundtracks went right out the window with "Dancer."

Yet the most damning criticism of all must be that when I left the theater, I couldn't have hummed a bar from any of "Dancer's" songs if my life depended on it. While it's true that Bjork brings that same old ACcent-on-the-OFF-sylLAble approach to every track, it's compounded by a bunch of forgettable tunes. Just try to think of any other much-loved musical you could say that about?

"Dancer in the Dark" is a fraud of a movie, sold on the fame of a pop star, with a plot so dumb Jerry Bruckheimer would have bought it -- minus the bummer ending, which is a cynically calculated ploy to give the film "edge." There's no turning back the clock, and "Dancer's" attempt to fuse '30s-style melodrama with postmodern sensibilities falls flat on its butt.

* * *

A great and valuable filmmaker By KAORI SHOJI I know he's good, but does he have to be this good?

Such is the problem with Lars von Trier. There is a certain point in a story, no matter how well told, when you want the thing to stop and change channels, or feel that the next episode is better left untold. When you just want to yell: "OK, got your point. Now please lay off."

But with "Dancer in the Dark," von Trier is deaf to all entreaties, as single-minded and unforgiving in his task as a torturer hired by the Inquisition.

Von Trier is a great and valuable filmmaker, but this work will confirm his reputation as a hard taskmaster. An actress who once worked for him went out of her mind and had to enter an asylum: After "Dancer," people in the audience may want to follow suit. We're dealing with a man who has no qualms about tormenting his cast, staff or audience -- all is sacrificed in the name of stupendous filmmaking.

Bjork, who plays Selma, got to the point where she had to force herself to show up for work and when she did, unprovoked tears would run down her face. Naturally, her mood became contagious. It's no coincidence and certainly not all acting, that everyone in this movie looks pained and sorrowful.

Part of the point of "Dancer" is that musicals help to alleviate the terrible sadness of real life, and that Selma draws hope from the musical fantasies she weaves around herself. At the factory where she works 12-hour shifts, Selma would pretend for two minutes that all the industrial noises around her, the shouts and sighs of hard labor, are musical notes and that she herself is the heroine of a big song-and-dance routine. Musicals are what give her the strength to live, and provide her with a happiness denied by real life.

At the same time, one can't help but wonder whether this is a double-edged sword. Selma pretends so feverishly that when true tragedy strikes, she loses all perspective and retreats to a world of self-deception where, just like in the movies, everything turns out all right. The scene where she resorts to brutal violence, but later pretends that the man she harmed gets up, washes himself, sings "I'm OK" and dances with her, is at once nightmarish and over-the-top-ridiculous. Von Trier gave Selma musicals as her only source of joy, only to reveal later that this antidote had toxic side effects.

Von Trier is the most well-known member of the "Dogma 95 Manifesto" gang, a group of Danish filmmakers that swore off special effects, fancy camera work and artificial sets. "Dancer" is a departure from Dogma in that it incorporates some elaborate musical scenes, but it also adheres to it by its documentary-style lens work and murky, amateurish lighting. The contrast is stark and without mercy. Selma's pretend world of solace and joy never quite merges with the reality of her life, which becomes, minute by minute, too painful to behold.

Was she better off because of musicals, or were musicals her undoing? "Dancer" asks us this question, which poses a bigger question about the role and meaning of motion pictures in general.

The song and dance of Selma Selma (Bjork) is a plucky Czech who has emigrated to America in search of the Dream: She remains full of hope and optimism, even though she lives in a trailer in a dreary industrial town, working on a factory assembly line and moonlighting at various odd jobs. Selma suffers from hereditary blindness, as does her 12-year-old son Gene, and she is working feverishly to save up the money needed for an operation to save his eyesight, if not her own.

Selma is befriended by Kathy (Katherine Deneuve), another worker at the factory, and admired by Jeff (Peter Stormare), while maintaining a tense relationship with her landlords, the policeman Bill (David Morse) and his avaricious wife Linda (Cara Seymour).

While her daily life is drab, Selma lands a part in a local production of "The Sound of Music," and she constantly daydreams about music and dance; for her, the real American Dream lies in Hollywood musicals. Her dreams are shattered, though, when her savings are stolen by someone close to her, and she has to resort to violence to get it back. The consequences are severe, and she has to choose between sacrificing herself or her son's eyesight . . .

"Dancer in the Dark" opens Dec. 23 at Marunouchi Prazer and other theaters.


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