I am a proponent of the work of Lars Von Trier, while I had seen films like Antichrist and The Five Obstructions and was aware of his dreary style and bleak worldview, it was not until I encountered the enigmatic, condemning and frankly post-cinematic film Dogville, one of his offerings to the Dogme 95 group whose demand that cinema return to the very act of recording the image managed to constitute a new idea of the possibilities of digital cinema. Dogville is a very tough sit, indeed, one of the most confrontational and, ultimately, moving films I have ever encountered. It also happens to be one of the films for which I have had the most emotive response. I did not think it would be likely that I would encounter another work quite like it, but leave it to watching another Lars Von Trier film to allow for such an occurrence. Here in Dancer in the Dark, the cinephile that is Von Trier takes a the much beloved genre of the musical, noted for its escapist elements and asks filmgoers to truly understand who is escaping from what during such a film and more so, who is afforded access and privilege in such spaces. I had heard whispers of this for some time, but its difficulty to obtain, rather lengthy runtime and an admittedly long time on my part to come around to the genius of Bjork, made me hesitant to embrace this endeavor. I am now ashamed that it indeed took so long, because it is really something special, not always happy or enjoyable in the escapist cinema context more in line with the musical, but in a post-structuralist and, dare I suggest, post-modern cinema this is the only type of genre film that should exist, one that reminds viewers that their hopes of escaping into the world of film is always tempered with the reality that the visual image is only partial reality when placed in a cinematic where linear narrative can be broken. Von Trier, always the provocateur, asks those watching a film like Dancer in the Dark a very stern and appropriate question. Should the society which condemns a figure in trouble that clings tenuously to a dream, or should the collective viewership of a film that demands such dreams be fictionally allowed be the real villain. In traditional Von Trier fashion, the answer is far from obvious.
Dancer in the Dark centers on the struggle single mother Selma (Bjork), whose legal blindness makes it somewhat difficult for her to remain viable and successful at her factory job, where precision and focus are not only necessary but key to survival. Despite these troubles she works hard and slowly builds up a large amount of money which she plans to use to help her own son Gene (Vladica Kostic) attain corrective eye surgery so he will not have to live his life with the same crippling blindness Selma has faced. While Selma does have the odds stacked against her, she is aided by the maternal guidance of another factory worker named Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) who helps her work through the nights and keeps an eye out for her in dangerous situations. Selma and Gene are also fortunate to be provided a cheap living space with a local family consisting of cop Bill Houston (David Morse) and his wife Linda (Cara Seymour), although it is revealed that Selma has been engaged in an affair with Bill for quite sometime, he constantly borrowing money from her for some unestablished source of money leak. When Bill becomes persistent about receiving a large loan, Selma refuses explaining that she is quite close to having the money for Gene's surgery and cannot afford the gamble. Frustrated, Bill betrays Selma and tells his wife that Selma has been making advances towards him, all the while taking the money he needs. Selma, as happy as ever, attempts merely to take the money back from Bill, who in a fit of defense ends up shooting himself and blaming Selma for the act. Selma on the run, attempts briefly to return to her dream of playing Maria in a local production of The Sound of Music, but is eventually tracked down by authorities who bring her in on murder charges. During her trial it is revealed that Selma has fabricated some of her past experiences, particularly in regards to who her father is thus leading to the jury finding her guilty of the murder she committed. While Kathy and others do their best to get a plea bargain for Selma, she is slammed with a death sentence that is acted out in the space of a penitentiary, but not before one final stirring and, ultimately, disconcerting dance number, one that is made all the more jarring by the film's final shot.
Dancer in the Dark, like all of Lars Von Trier's work exists in the post-structuralist state, as noted his Dogme 95 group draws attention to the very fabrication of cinema. With that in mind, Von Trier does include elements of post-production, often in a very purposeful and deconstructionist manner, this is evidenced in the final moment of Breaking the Waves when CGI invades previously minimalist film in a arguably divine manner. The same post-production elements work within Dancer in the Dark by the way of the musical performances, which while filmed in a realtime and on the fly do have the benefit of a post-production recording making the varied shots and ability to create continuity work. In the context of Von Trier this would seem like a betrayal to his style, but it is important to remember that the musical numbers exist within the mind of Selma and nowhere else, to her they are moments of dreamlike escapism that often result in her returning, very jarringly, to a disparaging reality. It is necessary to remember that there are other musical interludes in the film in the way of Selma and Kathy attending screenings of classic Hollywood musicals, these are not cut for continuity and the dialogue splits the film, in Selma's reality her escapism cannot come through the cinema, both because of her inability to see, but the refusal of other patrons to afford her extra sight by way of condemning her talking during the film. Thus, Dancer in the Dark uses the post-production nature of the musical and its navigation of the diegetic and non-diegetic world to suggest that escapism is at play in all musicals in so much as their impossibility must exist in a day dream of sorts, because singing and dancing to all-invading music is simply not part of a reality. Von Trier is commenting upon the world of the musical by showing that if musicals are in their purest sense the ultimate form of escapism, their success is predicated upon the viewer sharing in the sympathies of the cinematic subject, one that was established through witty dialogue in the thirties is here done through the reality afforded in digital cinema. In either case, the choreography, music and generally cinematic nature of the musical performance is not lost, but merely predicates itself upon different standards entirely.
Key Scene: The "I've Seen It All" sequence is profound. Simply profound.
I know it is not the cheapest of films to pick up but it is worth owning. I intend to upgrade to the Japanese bluray, but considering not all have gone region free, the DVD will suffice.