Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. So somebody must like it. I found the film more strange than anything else. For one thing, it is all spoken and sung in English! One critic described it as phonetic English, but that applies mostly to Björk, the Icelandic international pop sensation who plays Selma, the film’s protagonist. Selma is a Czech immigrant living in Washington state with a 10-year-old son who is slowly going blind. She is also going blind, albeit cheerfully. Get out the handkerchiefs.
After a pretentious and inexplicable overture to the film (as if it were an opera), the action begins with a rehearsal of an amateur production of The Sound of Music , with a bespectacled Selma oddly cast as Maria. Through her thick lenses, Selma looks and acts as if she is retarded, but when she takes the specs off she projects a wild, inarticulate beauty. Whatever she is, Björk is magnetic enough to carry a picture, even this one.
I had heard that Dancer in the Dark was a musical, but it seemed to take a long time for the musical numbers to commence. Meanwhile, Selma is shown in a factory in the middle of nowhere, or actually Norway, which doubles for Washington in Mr. von Trier’s take on Franz Kafka’s Amerika . Like Kafka, Mr. von Trier has never been to America, ostensibly because he doesn’t fly.
The point is that I didn’t believe anything in Dancer in the Dark on any level, but not because as an American I was offended by Mr. von Trier’s professed pre–Berlin Wall Marxist orientation. Indeed, I would tag him less as a Marxist than as a sadist. Throughout his career, which includes Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998), he has made his protagonists suffer inordinately, painfully and, ultimately, tediously.
What fascinates me the most in the acclaim awarded to Dancer in the Dark is its implication that European intellectuals regard America as a perpetual never-never land where anything goes. In this respect, I am reminded of another Cannes Film Festival sensation, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), which never caught on in the States. What I can’t understand is why American cinéastes-or indeed, anyone who understands English-can accept Dancer in the Dark as anything but incoherent babble.
I realize that think pieces are waiting to be written about von Trier and Brechtian distancing, about von Trier and the Central European operatic tradition of Janácek and others, about von Trier and the early musicals of Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian and their percussive cues from daily life and its machinery. In this context, it is fitting that Selma works in a factory that makes household appliances, since Mr. von Trier throws even the kitchen sink into his bizarre concoction.
Mr. von Trier manages to pile on so many layers of unreality that the captious critic feels silly calling attention to any single improbability. For example, it is hard enough to believe in a revival theater in the outlands playing nothing but old Busby Berkeley musicals. It is harder still to believe that Selma’s best friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), would “describe” the dance movements to Selma by running her fingers over Selma’s hand. It is even harder to believe that a man would complain repeatedly about Kathy’s explanations during the musical numbers. Finally, it is utterly impossible to understand where Kathy came from to be Selma’s best friend, all the way to Selma’s last moments on the gallows. Even George W. Bush, I suspect, would have commuted the death sentence of a blind woman, though he did snicker in response to a born-again Christian woman’s plea to be spared the lethal injection.
Ms. Deneuve reportedly applied for the role of Kathy, and like Björk, she is iconically striking enough to distract us from the film’s endless gaps in credibility. Curiously, the film gets more interesting and more Brechtian as it goes along. Yet if one could take it more seriously, it becomes more and more cruel. In the end, Selma sacrifices her life so that her son can receive an operation that will preserve his sight. She is thus a martyr without any religious consolation.
My own opposition to the death penalty makes me somewhat ambivalent toward all the contrivances and distancing musical diversions Mr. von Trier employs to get to his climactic death-house extravaganza. If only the dialogue were not so disconnected and the performances not so perfunctory. I am not familiar with the rest of the competition at Cannes, but Renée Zellweger in Nurse Betty was apparently never even remotely considered for Best Actress. All I know is that Ms. Zellweger acted in comprehensible English, and Björk doesn’t act at all in any language. In the end, she is merely a song-and-dance cue waiting to happen. There are worse things in the world, but also much better things as well.
Some of the film’s defenders, compelled to confront the plot’s excessive sentimentality, have invoked the silent classics of D.W. Griffith (1875-1948), particularly Broken Blossoms (1919) and Orphans of the Storm (1922). In my estimation, however, Dancer in the Dark makes Griffith look like Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Consider: When Selma is visited by her seemingly kindly policeman-landlord, Bill (David Morse), he asks her for a loan because his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour), is so extravagant that he is near bankruptcy. Nothing we have seen of Linda or her domicile or her drab surroundings suggests either the possibility or motivation for extravagance. What would a cop’s wife expect in a factory town? Again, one unreality piled upon another.
Selma refuses Bill’s request because she is saving all her money for an operation to save the sight of her son. Despite her own failing eyesight, she has taken to working double shifts at the factory and supplementing her income in her spare time by carding hairpins. Pretending that he has left her trailer, Bill takes advantage of Selma’s failing eyesight to stay behind undetected and thus discover the hiding place for her savings, in a candy tin behind the ironing board.
Sure enough, after Selma has been fired from the factory and retrieves the tin to put away her last week’s wages, she finds it empty, and knows immediately that Bill is the culprit. To make matters worse, Bill’s wife angrily demands that Selma leave the premises, because Bill has covered up his theft by lying to Linda, telling her that Selma has made advances to him.
Instead of denying Bill’s accusation, Selma insists on speaking to Bill personally. In her almost blind state, Selma begins to take on the appearance of a tortured dumb animal. Hence, when she confronts Bill, what ensues is an excruciating duet that ends up with Selma shooting Bill to retrieve her life’s savings. But it’s not that simple. The guilt-ridden Bill actually asks Selma to kill him-a fact that Selma will not be able to prove to a skeptical jury, which sees only a commie cop killer before it.
Before Bill is fatally shot, he asks his wife to “get” the police. Why “get”? Don’t Bill and Linda have a phone, even in the Cold War era? Obviously, Mr. von Trier needed time to get Selma out of the house so that her incredibly patient suitor, Jeff (Peter Stormare), can pick her up in his truck and drop her off far enough from the scene of the crime that she has time to deposit her recovered savings with an eye surgeon (for the operation on her son some years hence), as well as to revisit the amateur theatrical troupe, where she is intentionally stalled with false promises until the police can finally grab her.
Her final betrayer, Joel Grey’s Oldrich Novy, a legendary Czech tap dancer, ends up doing a number with the enraptured Selma. Her only two true friends-Kathy and Jeff-implore her to save her life by using her savings to pay for a good lawyer, but that money, Selma insists, is solely for her son’s operation, making her a secular saint, but nonetheless a somewhat reluctant hanging victim.
People have also mentioned Dennis Potter as a trail-blazer for Dancer in the Dark , but Potter’s mix of pop music and somber drama was much more accessible to a general audience. I must confess that Björk’s musical compositions and Mr. von Trier’s lyrics struck me as esoteric by comparison.
The Debate Over a 35-Hour Work Week
Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources , from a screenplay by Mr. Cantet and Gilles Marchand, deserves an award as the least commercial title of the year. I’m surprised I even managed to see it, and yet it is well worth seeing for its insights into generational conflicts in a factory town between an upwardly mobile son named Frank (Jalil Lespert), and a contentedly status-quo father. The son takes on an intern’s job with management in the human resources department of a factory in which his father has worked and sacrificed so that his son could climb up the social ladder.
The son is hung up on the idea of liberal reform in what turns out to be a Darwinian jungle. Frank takes as his point of departure the new proposals for a 35-hour week as a means of promoting the desirability of leisure among the workers-and especially his father, who has toiled away contentedly at his machine for 30 years, and wants nothing more out of life than his son’s ascension to the realms of money and power.
When Frank proposes a questionnaire for the workers on the issue of the 35-hour week, he does not realize that he is undercutting the union and thus giving management a free hand to make personnel reductions, on the grounds that cost-cutting is the price of survival in the global market place.
The most amazing thing about the movie, however, is that except for Mr. Lespert, all the actors are non-professional-though you would never suspect it because they are all so convincing in their class-structured roles. Jean-Claude Vallod especially is a revelation as the father. He came close to making me cry with his steadfast conservatism in refusing to be “reformed,” and also his fear that his son would blow his great opportunity to rise in the world by choosing to grandstand instead.