“Nothing dreadful ever happens in musicals,” a character intones toward the close of “Dancer in the Dark.” But writer-director Lars von Trier’s ghastly new picture seems devoted to proving how untrue that statement is. If the three-minute overture used to open the piece is pretentious, the two-and-a-half hours that follow it get progressively worse.
The self-styled Danish auteur has fashioned a tale in which characters occasionally burst into song, but it’s nonetheless a story about human misery, in which the musical interludes serve merely to emphasize how hopeless most people’s circumstances are. And while the narrative appears to be about individuals, it’s also–unless I miss my guess–designed as a defiant ode to Marxism, a simple-minded screed against the crushing of communism by brutal American capitalism that closes with the promise that though the socialist spirit may be temporarily stifled, it will rise again. Like Michael Cimino’s notorious “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), moreover, it offers its not-so-profound socio-political commentary in a pointlessly showy style that says more about its creator’s self-importance than any message he wants to deliver.
“Dancer in the Dark” lifts its form (and the trajectory of its plot) from Dennis Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven” (both the BBC television series starring Bob Hoskins and the egregiously underrated 1981 Herbert Ross filmization with Steve Martin). “Pennies,” you may remember, was about a group of depression-era figures who would periodically express their inner feelings by lip-synching to popular recordings of the time, and it ended with its protagonist convicted of murder and sent to hang (though there was a bittersweet coda). Elegantly shaped and crafted (especially in Ross’ gorgeous refashioning), it captured the yearnings of individuals trapped in cicumstances they can only dream their way out of. Von Trier’s reworking of the idea (even the title of which is prefigured in the lyrics of the penultimate song in Potter’s work) is set in 1960s America, and centers on Czech immigrant Selma Jezkova (Bjork) who’s working long, hard hours at a dangerous machine in a tool factory in Washington state, even though she’s afflicted with a hereditary disease that renders her nearly sightless; she also does odd jobs on the side, all so that she can save money for an operation that will save her son Gene (Vladica Kostic) from the same ocular fate. Selma’s only joy in life, apart from the hope of paying for her boy’s treatment, comes from musicals; she attends old Hollywood ones regularly showing in a local theatre (rather incongruously, given that the setting is small-town Washington) accompanied by her protective friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) even though she can’t see the screen, and she’s also rehearsing for the lead role in a community production of “The Sound of Music” although her failing eyesight will eventually make it impossible for her to go on; at moments of emotional crisis, moreover, she bursts into song, escaping the reality of her misery by musicalizing her situation. Selma and Gene live in a trailer provided at nominal rent by her friends Bill and Linda (David Morse and Cara Seymour); Bill, a cop, seems a nice fellow, but it turns out that Linda has spent his inheritance, leaving him broke, and eventually he steals poor Selma’s stash of cash and tells his wife that Selma had tried to seduce him. When Selma tries to retrieve her money, Bill virtually forces her to kill him, and after the poor woman does a song-and-dance with his ghost, she’s arrested and tried (in a ludicrous courtroom sequence that involves Joel Grey as an old Czech hoofer and Zeljko Ivanek as a district attorney who must have learned law by watching bad TV shows), eventually being sent off to the big house where, after stopping all appeals in order to save her money for Gene’s needs, she’s gruesomely executed (though there’s time for one last musical number in which she notes that though “they think it’s our last song, they don’t know us”).
Now all this absurd business can be read on two levels. It is, of course, first and foremost a kind of homage to the crass tearjerkers of the thirties and forties in which a poor heroine suffered and then suffered some more before dying with integrity intact. The interpolated songs (not standards, but new compositions whose lyrics are tied to the narrative) play up the heroine’s dreamy, dazed hopefulness and serve to make her sufferings all the more unfair and cruel. But “Dancer in the Dark” isn’t just a conventional weepie–it’s also a political tract. Selma is Czech, you see (one of the charges implied against her is that she’s a Communist), and she’s been seduced by the American Dream, deluded into thinking that she can achieve what she needs by hard work and honest effort. (She’s literally blind to the Dream’s phoniness.) But the system crushes her; she’s ultimately fired from her job, betrayed by a policeman (the very symbol of the false justice the system represents) and then sent to her death, a wronged innocent. At the end, however, she seems to realize what’s been done to her and in effect shouts “We’ll be back!” What “Dancer in the Dark” argues is that American capitalism is a sham which inevitably crushes the poor schmucks who buy into it, but resistance will inevitably arise in response to its enormities; the implication, surely, is that the recent triumph of western market practice over Soviet-style communism may be real, but it’s only a matter of time before the socialist flag is raised again.
A filmmaker has every right to deliver such a message if he wishes, of course, but whatever attraction it might have for the proletariat will surely be smothered in this case by the awful quality of von Trier’s film. Its narrative portion is clumsily constructed and poorly written, and to make matters worse it’s shot in a quasi-Dogma-tic style, drably colored and dimly lit, with a hand-held camera (manned by von Trier himself) that weaves about so horribly that the result will induce seasickness in unwary viewers. (You might want to take some Dramamine before the screening.) The musical numbers are more professionally done but unsettling rather than pleasing: the melodies are instantly forgettable, the lyrics merely conversational (perhaps just drawn from the script), and the atmosphere deliberately off-putting. There’s a Busby Berkeley routine on a factory floor that’s jaw-droppingly odd, for instance, and a very peculiar “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” kind of thing on a moving railway car (the surrounding male chorus is dressed like lumberjacks, and their bass-and-baritone voices sound as though they were coming from a roster of Jolly Green Giants). The Selma-and-Bill ghost dance is no less weird, and the awful snippets we’re shown of the “Sound of Music” production suggest that locals would be well advised to skip the final product.
Despite all this, composer/songstress Bjork makes an impressive debut as Selma. Her waifish, Raggedy Ann-ish persona is perfect for the part, and (doubtlessly under the urging of von Trier) she goes for broke emotionally. It’s truly a tour de force–a pity the material hardly warrants it. Otherwise the cast is pretty much wasted. Morse can use quietness to advantage, but here he’s merely stolid, and Deneuve is stuck in a thoroughly thankless role. Grey still seems to have his old terpsichorean skills, but for some reason (perhaps his partner Bjork’s limitations), his routine is shot mostly waist-up and with far too many edits, so that it’s impossible to appreciate his work. Peter Stormare wanders about the picture as a suitor unaccountably infatuated with Selma; it’s impossible to tell exactly why he’s in the script at all. It’s hard to evaluate the film technically, given its ostentatiously quirky style, but one thing is certain: shot in Sweden, it never captures an authentically American flavor.
“Dancer in the Dark” is such an abject failure that even those who praised “Breaking the Waves” (unjustly, in my opinion) may be moved to reconsider their admiration for von Trier’s work. The writer-director may have vaunting ambition, but it’s certainly not allied to any depth of thought or visual mastery. This picture’s combination of self-importance and shallowness suggests that, with just the slightest bit of effort, he may well join the highest rank among cinematic poseurs–the Greenaway level.