Critic Gavin Smith has called Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark the first “genuinely tragic musical.” While I think G. W. Pabst’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1931) qualifies as that almost seventy years sooner, Dancer in the Dark is neither the frivolous escapism (think Singin’ in the Rain) nor sentimental garbage (think West Side Story) that accounts for the vast majority of musical films. Although its deviation from some of the guidelines that Trier himself devised cost it Dogme 95 certification (the protagonist’s musical fantasies contest the rule requiring objective reality; the film is set in the past), Dancer applies its alert, light-sensitive handheld video camera to dark, substantial stuff. It’s like a demented cross between I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958) and—Dreyer is Trier’s spiritual mentor—Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). One might call it Breaking the Waves in Song and Dance.
In early 1960s America, in rural Washington state, Czech immigrant Selma Jezkóva is a workhorse in a wash-basin factory saving her earnings to pay for an operation that might keep her twelve-year-old son, Gene, from inheriting the same disease that’s causing her own advancing blindness. The single mother had come to America, her heart set on redeeming herself from parental guilt by reversing Gene’s prognosis, and her mind full of Hollywood musicals, which continue to be her one outlet for entertainment. However, she had hoped to find the U.S., also, as light, attractive and hospitable as the musical films had made it seem; now, to escape the drudgery of heavy precision labor, she “spaces out” into reveries of these films, where, magically, she is sometimes the star. (She is also rehearsing the part of Maria in an amateur production of The Sound of Music.) These passages, among the film’s high points, address the role of popular culture in American society as palliative for the harshness, cruelty and unfairness of American life; the almost primitive simplicity of the songs and the dances exposes the insufferable ordeal that Jezkóva finds entangling and strangling her.
Selma isn’t alone in struggling. Her landlord, the local sheriff, reverses his kindness, stealing her savings, under the strain of his own strapped financial resources—a condition he hides from his wife much as Selma hides her failing eyesight, especially at work. Eventually, at his urging, she kills the sheriff. No one believes this suicide-by-proxy; Selma is tried, convicted and hanged for theft and murder. Having refused to convert the money she stole back into payment for an appeals lawyer, she dies believing that her sacrifice will best help her son.
Heaven knows whether this is correct; Gene becomes an orphan. On the other hand, American stupidity and prejudice suggest that no attorney, however skilled, could reverse Selma’s legal fortunes. Americans, Trier insists, are as blind and deaf to the truth as the Scottish villagers in Breaking the Waves (1996).
Trier’s Dancer vividly conveys the crushing monotony, and also the constant danger, of factory work. Moreover, like Dreyer’s Passion, Trier’s film splendidly illustrates the possibility of autonomy and moral action even when a multitude of victimizing forces are arrayed against one. Trier has also mounted one of cinema’s most powerful, heartrending indictments of capital punishment; the irony that the U.S. still adheres to this practice of state murder is a sad coda we ourselves can add to the film’s statement. Another asset is that Björk, Sjón Sigurdsson, Thom Yorke and Trier himself have composed and written the most haunting film songs since Friedrich Holländer’s for Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948). As usual, Trier is amazing with actors, in this instance drawing even from the usually clueless Catherine Deneuve good, solid acting as Kathy, Selma’s co-worker and friend. Most triumphantly, Trier has guided his first-time (and, she says, last-time) film star, Björk, through one of the most enchanting and deeply affecting performances in cinema. The Icelandic pop singer fully deserves her many accolades, including best actress at Cannes, the European Film Awards, the Bodil Festival and, here, from the National Board of Review.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.