TURN IT UP TO 11—that's the notion behind all melodrama. Amplify, intensify, heighten those emotions. The problem for a thoroughly modern, post-ironic filmmaker like Lars von Trier is how to tap into the grand passions of an obsolete dramatic form without his audience receiving it as corn.
DANCER IN THE DARK
written and directed by Lars von Trier with Bj� Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, and Peter Stormare
opens October 6 at Harvard Exit and Seven Gables
Breaking the Waves previously signaled von Trier's interest in emotional extremes, as did his less successful, less seen The Idiots. Both those films push characters and viewers alike to the breaking point. Watching Emily Watson or The Idiot's madhouse cast strip themselves naked causes you to flinch, cringe, and avert your eyes. Von Trier seemingly wants to inflict a kind of moral/psychic assault on the complacent filmgoer. There's no refuge in our comfy multiplex seats, popcorn poised before our astonished mouths.
First, however, comes the setup. Czech immigrant Selma (Bj� labors at a factory in rural 1964 Washington state, daydreaming behind her thick spectacles. She's going blind due to a genetic defect, a fact suspected by her only friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and confessed only to her landlord (David Morse), the local sheriff. Poor single parent Selma's saving money for an operation to save her 10-year-old son from the same fate. In this predicament of sacrifice and privation, Dancer has all the dramatic subtlety of a D.W. Griffith silent; Selma could just as well have been played by Lillian Gish. The only question is when the inevitable flood of tears will come.
Von Trier's modern wrinkle is to meld the tearjerker with the reality-interrupting musical, as Selma's imagination gives rise to elaborate numbers indebted to Busby Berkeley and Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven). With this device—once so common, now so anomalous— hardship is dissolved into song and dance. Disbelief is suspended as Selma finds inspiration from the mechanical rhythms of the factory floor or a passing train, then launches into song. (Bj�began as the film's composer, then became its star.)
THE TECHNO BEATS of Bj�s contemporary score don't gibe with von Trier's '60s setting, but it's artifice, not verisimilitude, he's pushing. He knows that the production numbers strain credulity; he knows that Selma's overdetermined, inexorably tragic story is no less an anachronism. We've seen it all before, he acknowledges, but never in this particular combination.
Does that make it art? Not quite. Over a half-dozen musical interludes spring from both rhythmic and emotional cues, as Selma's increasing distress requires ever greater escapism. Accordingly, von Trier suddenly boosts his digital video colors to the intensity of cheap postcards, actors burst into song, chorus members throw down their mops to dance, and—to take it all in—our perspective increases on the order of literally 100 cameras. Otherwise, during Selma's sad predictable tale, there's no music at all. She and Kathy rehearse with an amateur musical company, but those halting performances are unpolished and quote-unquote real, providing Selma no sanctuary in the end.
Although both film and star earned top honors at Cannes, the unique, draining, and cathartic Dancer ultimately lacks any rationale for Selma's travails. Its frequently astonishing parts don't add up to a coherent whole. Bj�s music and acting are thoroughly affecting. Deneuve and David Morse are equally fine, while Fargo's Peter Stormare makes an impression in his few scenes as Selma's would-be boyfriend.
What you're left with is von Trier's fierce, unshakable belief in the value of suffering, which parallels Selma's devotion to music. Both are supposed to offer transcendence, but Selma's martyrdom is less profound than Swing Time or Top Hat. The quaint secular pleasures of Rogers and Astaire will outlast von Trier's tortured religiosity because their spontaneous grace is simply given to us, while Dancer's brute notion of salvation is rammed down our throats. It's a crucifixion set to the sound of music.