We gave it an A
Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is a crock — a very pretty, deftly executed crock. It’s like von Trier’s 1996 masterpiece, ”Breaking the Waves,” remade as a high concept masochistic Hallmark card. Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant living in rural America in the early ’60s, is going blind, and she devotes her life to saving money for the operation that will prevent her 12 year old son (Vladica Kostic) from suffering the same genetic fate. How nobly does Selma strive? Why, she works double shifts at a tool and die factory, even as her failing eyesight dooms her to risk her livelihood (and her limbs), and she still finds time to rehearse the role of Maria in a local production of ”The Sound of Music.” Now THAT’S a big heart.
At once kitschy and contrived, ”Dancer in the Dark” is a grandiloquent exercise in holier than thou martyrdom, yet I do think that its musical numbers, in contrast to the rest of the film, are discordantly lovely visions of heaven bursting through on earth in color saturated splendor, and at least one of them lays bare the heavy handed tweeness of von Trier’s design. Selma, standing on a beautiful wooden bridge, listens to the clackety clack of a train going by, and as the sound becomes the music of her imagination, the soaring melancholy of Björk’s voice takes over the movie.
A friendly suitor, standing next to Selma, sings, ”You’ve never been to Niagara Falls?” and she answers, ”I have seen water, it’s water, that’s all.” A little later, she adds the plaintive refrain ”I have seen it all, there is no more to see.” Selma is saying that she accepts blindness — but, even more, that she’s content to withdraw from the experience of life itself. She isn’t just willing to die for her son. She’s ecstatically ready to die.
But that’s the problem with the movie. Its heroine doesn’t embrace cataclysmic self sacrifice through conflict or soul searching or pain. She’s simply made that way — she’s a clockwork saint. There’s no drama to her goodness, just a stacked deck series of moral tests that she sails through with numbing perfection.
Björk, sporting thick spectacles and a dank mop of hair, with a fleshy baby face that breaks into a gaze of beatific happiness (she’s a dewdrop that smiles), looks like Emily Watson’s library nerd kid sister, and ”Dancer in the Dark,” with its jump cut editing and herky jerky home movie camera style, is a transparent attempt to recapture the glory of ”Breaking the Waves.”
The difference is this: In ”Waves,” Watson’s character, through the ruthless ego of her love, committed an act of metaphysical violence, virtually killing her husband in order to bring him home. Björk’s Selma commits an act of literal violence, but the movie twists itself into sentimental knots to justify and exonerate her, only to dispatch her into a small town legal system so pitiless that her life isn’t worth the $2,000 of pro bono work that could save it.
We never really do get to know Selma’s son, and so the pivotal love relationship remains as abstract as the one in ”Breaking the Waves” was intimate. Yet that ”flaw” ultimately reflects the intentions of von Trier, who wants you involved not with Selma but with his vision, his lyrical saintliness as a filmmaker. Can a movie that hinges on this many cheap tricks really ask you to buy its purity? ”Dancer in the Dark” is like a naive modernist hymn made by someone who doesn’t, deep down, believe in hymns.