Dancer in the Dark
As with Breaking the Waves (1996), Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is more an event or a case than a mere movie. Once again, von Trier offers us a work that is, by turns, provocative, maddening, seductive and perverse – as well as emotionally draining.
No filmmaker working today invites as much ad hominem attack as von Trier. His motives are regularly questioned by critics, journalists and filmgoers. Paul Willemen targeted the filmmaker’s “relentless inflation of advertising techniques, here mostly deployed to advertise one and only one item: von Trier himself as directorial value on the cultural stock market”. (1) Others routinely decry his talent for self-publicity (such as, according to a cretian interpretation, the Dogme manifesto proclamation), portraying him as a distasteful combination of showman and con artist.
So is von Trier just a trickster, out to shock? Is he really serious about anything? Why his growing penchant for cheap, digitally-shot quickies? He stands accused of cynicism, artistic bankruptcy and gross manipulation of his audience. And his response to all of this is to make Dancer in the Dark, in many ways his most extreme and disarming film to date.
Having rarely been an admirer of von Trier’s work since The Element of Crime (1984), I too have sometimes been willing to think the worst of his intentions. But Dancer in the Dark seems to me self-evidently a serious, carefully thought-out film, and by the far his best. It only half works, but that successful half is enought to elevate it to the rank of an essential movie experience.
Dancer in the Dark is a full-out melodrama, based on a classic Hollywood premise: the suffering woman. Von Trier regards it as the third entry in his Golden Heart trilogy, after Breaking the Waves and The Idiots (1998). This time around, the golden heart belongs to Selma (Björk). Like most von Trier heroines, Selma is a child-woman whose capacity for voluptuous suffering is indistinguishable from a very Christian form of masochism.
Selma stoically traverses her Stations of the Cross from word go. She’s a Czech immigrant working in an American factory, a single mother who is poor and going blind; her only concern in life is securing an operation for her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). She is essentially alone in her suffering, despite some giggly moments with her co-worker, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). The only other person who offers compassionate understanding, Bill (David Morse), turns out to be the source of her life’s greatest tragedy.
If one were to string together the supposedly normal scenes of Dancer in the Dark – filmed with the director’s standard, hand-held, semi-improvised, hit-and-miss technique – one might well recoil from this often unconvincing and ham-fisted drama. (Nonetheless, one reviewer advised punters to wait for the DVD to do precisely this!) Its social conscience agenda is still-born. And Björk is not so much directed as simply let go in front the camera: as in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the suffering of the character seems to merge with the arguably sadistic element of psychodrama forced upon the performer. The result, on this level, is uncomfortable but riveting.
But Dancer in the Dark is also an elaborate musical. Like the protagonist of a Dennis Potter TV series, Selma regularly bursts into song (as the revealing saying goes), enchanting and energising the miserable spaces of her daily world: work, home, train, and eventually prison.
The explicit analysis of musicals made by the characters – as they go to movies, sit around talking, or attend rehearsals of a local production of The Sound of Music (a counterpoint idea von Trier may have got from the little-known and remarkable Handgun ) – is pretty banal: musicals are escapist, Utopian, magical, full of feeling. But the actual song and dance numbers (composed by Björk and choreographed by Vincent Paterson) are breathtaking achievements, offering a truly radical approach to the musical genre.
Many commentators have complained about von Trier’s treatment of these numbers, rapidly cutting between one hundred video cameras. Is this merely MTV-style flashiness, a facile gag played on the classic Hollywood-Broadway mode of musical spectacle? These sequences in fact possess an admirably coherent logic, and they grow in emotional power over the course of the film.
Most songs in musicals provide for their characters what the real world cruelly deprives them of: physical grace, emotional warmth and material abundance. Von Trier manages an intriguing two-step here. While the songs do not literally take Selma into a Brigadoon (1954)-style Other World – indeed, they are saturated with poignant signs of ordinariness – they enact, in their style, the heightened release that musicals traditionally offer.
The dramatic scenes and the song sequences exist in a point-for-point relationship. Von Trier renders Selma’s real life in a choppy, discontinuous, seasick, murky way, while the songs are gloriously smooth, colourful and continuous. The drama is filmed stingily with one, meandering camera; the songs are captured in an overflowing manner from a hundred, static positions. The soundtrack, meanwhile, transforms itself as well: from a thin mono-effect in dramatic scenes to full Dolby-surround for the songs.
As the story progresses, Selma’s musical world is subject to rigorous disintegration. A fragment of “My Favourite Things” is sung by Selma in her cell over a faint, reverberant, sampled loop of a choir. And ultimately, what previously seemed like corny, sentimental advice to “listen to your heart” provides the basis for Selma’s swansong, set to the only music she has left: her heartbeat.
Von Trier uses the Dennis Potter trick of ending most songs abruptly, in order to mark the absolute divide between fantasy and reality. But, at the beginning and for the duration of each song, his inspired collaboration with Björk produces a remarkable blending of sounds sampled from reality with musical structures.
There is much in Dancer in the Dark that some viewers will resist as unreal – beginning with the American setting (it was not shot in America) and the supposed identities of most of the characters (such as Joel Grey’s cameo as a beloved star of Czech musicals). But, here again, the drama’s force gains from the bleed-over effect of the musical fantasy: the film as a whole appears to be as much a dream in von Trier’s head as the songs are in Selma’s. And it’s a dream with a subversive bite.
It is hard to determine yet whether Dancer in the Dark marks a backward or forward step in von Trier’s career. His obsession with suffering women on show is undoubtedly lazy, and his retreat from the risky spiritual themes of Breaking the Waves is palpable – as Canadian critic Mark Peranson has remarked, here “musicals take the place of God”, (2) to no clear effect. However, as a film that stretches the expectations and receptors of its audience every which way, Dancer in the Dark is sometimes magnificent.
(Extract from book chapter: “The Dark”, 2003)
At the turn of the millennium, Lars von Trier’s controversial Dancer in the Dark exploded through global film culture. Here is an example of a musical mutation so bold and brazen that, virtually overnight, it galvanised critical discourse everywhere – disturbing casual, cosy assumptions, and forcing people to ask themselves the question: just what is a musical, anyway? (3)
Dancer in the Dark has enjoyed the paradoxical honour of being hailed as a work in the tradition of Dennis Potter – for David Jays, von Trier seeks to “accentuate the contradictions, to slip spanners into Busby Berkeley’s gleaming works” (4) – while being publicised by its Australian distributor as a “part-homage to the Euro-musicals of Jacques Demy”! In a sense, both claims are true. On the one hand, the film insists on the bleak separation of escapist musical fantasies from the grimy, murky realities of the quotidian, via the standard Potter stylistic device: the shock cut before the song is fully over, dropping us back into the everyday, framing scenes in which these fantasies have arisen. But, on the other hand, the musical numbers themselves have an intensity and virtuosity missing from the Potter legacy.
The real interpenetration of the songs and the drama in Dancer in the Dark occurs at the level of an ingenious and carefully wrought formal logic of complementarity. It is easy to take the non-musical scenes as the usual, non-rigorous free-forming beloved of von Trier in his Dogme phase: hand-held camera, incessant jump cuts, muddy digital images, loosely improvised performances, open (even outrightly sloppy) mise en scène. But – for once in his career – this mode exists only in a strict counterpoint to another mode that reverses it in almost every detail.
Like Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole (1998), Dancer in the Dark opposes a fantasy of abundance to a reality of miserable, economic and material scarcity. But its most brilliant step is to locate that abundance on a formal and stylistic plane. As was widely publicised, the musical sequences were filmed in single takes by a hundred digital cameras, these views then edited in rapid succession. This is not mere capriciousness, exhibitionism or perversity on von Trier’s part; the mode of filming chosen has three powerful pay-offs.
First, where the dramatic scenes are relentlessly discontinuous in their formal rendering, the songs are almost magically continuous – match-cutting (editing on movement) has rarely carried such a palpable thrill. Second, where the dramatic scenes have a cramped, heavy feel, due to the single, hand-held camera shuttling back and forth monotonously between the actors – as if the actors are insects shoved under glass for morbid or sadistic inspection – the musical scenes are seemingly limitless in their spatial extension. As the singers and dancers cover ground (especially in the train number), it is as if their movements, in any direction whatsoever, trigger a static camera to capture a specific segment of the choreography (it’s an inspired appropriation of TV-style “vision switching” rather than cinematic mise en scène as such). Thirdly, there is the exhilarating, plastic effect guaranteed by those one hundred cameras, many set at extremely odd, non-classical angles: in a veritable orgy of formal abundance, this multiplicity of views ensures (or so it very much seems) that no angle is ever used twice.
In all these ways, von Trier has taken literally and made explicit the subtle aesthetic at work in Hollywood musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) in which, as Alain Masson has demonstrated, “[t]he space is transparent, the filmic area unlimited (...) inaugurat[ing] an abstract vision of space defined only according to its own rule, as if it were independent of any position”. (5) More integrally, these formal devices work in concert to build an expressive world-picture: Selma (Björk) never sings to us, never liberates herself from the diegesis to that extent, like Gene Kelly did in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967); rather, her musical fantasies constitute fragile, desperate attempts to weave around her an intersubjective community of harmonious, compassionate souls – and the hundred cameras enclose the bubble of this dream.
This is, in fact, a radical approach to musical mise en scène – one that belies the complaints of those who find the numbers in the film lazily or half-heartedly staged, as if merely mounted in the spirit of an ironic, postmodern, quotational joke, or simply recycling an “MTV aesthetic” (whatever that is). Too much evident work has gone into the conceptualising and planning of these scenes and into the tight intermeshing of all their elements (staging, song production and choreography) for this to be so. It is true to say that von Trier experiments with what could be called an aggressive approach to the rendering of Selma’s songs – as Paul Willemen accurately complains, “camera positions are consistently divorced from narrative logic” and “cinematic space and time are destroyed” (6) – but are we so far here from the sort of scenographic fracturings explored by Godard in La femme est une femme (1961) and Pierrot le fou (1965)?
Robert Altman performed a similar experiment in Popeye (1980), in which the typical elements of his style – extensive use of long shots, a floating babble of voices and sounds, incessant and disconcerting cross-cutting between scenes in separate spaces, and what Leonard Maltin regarded as “cluttered staging” – were used upon the “alleged songs by Harry Nilsson” (7) as much as on the normal scenes, with some incredible and exciting disorientations resulting.
Another formal difference between the dramatic and musical scenes in Dancer in the Dark occurs on the level of the sound design. The former use a thin, sonically restricted range; the latter explode in multi-speaker Dolby. This is an index of von Trier’s attention to sound and its formal logic throughout. Each song is composed and produced around a specific kind of audio dissolve (as Tom Gunning has called this device): a real sound (such as that of the factory machinery) that provides a rhythm leads into the start of the number proper. Björk’s music, however, pushes the envelope of the audio dissolve, since sampled treatments make up so much of the texture of each piece. Von Trier, for his part, stages the dances, in their spatial extension, so as to allow the incessant filtering-in of non-musical sounds that instantly become musical within the mix, such as the bike wheel spun by Gene (Vladica Kostic) or the metallic ring of the wind-blown flagpole in the resurrection number following the murder of Bill (David Morse).
Dancer in the Dark moves toward the magisterial point at which the corny injunction from Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) to “Listen to your heart!” assumes its full formal logic: at that moment, in direct sound, Selma will sing to the beat (amplified for us) of her own heart, the only music left to her once all external audio-dissolve prompts have been cruelly taken away (prison, we are told, is a hellishly quiet place). A course of musical disintegration, leading to this moment, has been charted: its key phase is the disquieting rendition of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, sung by Selma (the first of two songs recorded in direct sound) over a sampled loop of the choral singing emanating down the pipes and through the grill into her cell.
Prior to this disintegration, all Selma’s music has been like an inner music writ large, projected onto the external world– this is the conjured sensorium of her sightless world, akin to Juliette Binoche’s condition in Les Amants du Pont-neuf (1991); now she is reduced to the merest scrap of sound, like the steps taken that lead her to the gallows. Dancer in the Dark thus takes apart not only the inside and outside of its songs, but even the inside and outside of its heroine (for once, the popularly misused word deconstruction would not be out of place): her experience of psycho-acoustic plenitude embodied, then stripped bare, and finally suspended in the moment of non-closure heralded (casually at first) by the film in its dream of the eternal “second last song” (or in Siegfried Kracauer’s resonant final book title: last things before the last …).
Among the reasons that von Trier’s film wields such cultural force is because of the severe way it denaturalises the American provenance of the musical genre. In this American story, no locations and few actors are authentically American; instead, the film gives the impression of (as John Caughie once put it) “playing at being American” for our troubled and fascinated amusement. (8) And it is a grim game, because, on the dramatic plane, the film evolves into an unstinting critique of the American system of capital punishment – a bold extension of conventional generic content that, once again, acknowledges a debt to the true legacy of Jacques Demy – the Demy of Une chambre en ville (1982) rather than his earlier, better-known musicals.
Definitions and depictions of nationality inform another major, beguiling element of Dancer in the Dark. Much is made of the existence of a character who is a star of Czech musicals that are beloved in his nation’s popular memory – so beloved that, in Selma’s fantasy, he is cast as her imaginary father. In a final, dizzying twist of anti-verisimilitude, this Czech star is ultimately incarnated by Joel Grey from Cabaret (1972).
Von Trier’s perversity here is inspired. What makes this surreally foreign character at once so bizarre and so magical is the utter alienness of his conception: only within such a completely fantasticated, desperately wishful world would a non-Hollywood musical star hold such enormous sway over sentimental and social destinies. But maybe that is, after all, a real world for many spectators in far-flung lands and subterranean pockets of world culture – or a musical Utopia actually worth having in the future.
NOTE: The second text presented here, adapted from material in my “Musical Mutations” project, was prepared at the invitation of the Austrian Film Museum in 2003 for a book on film musicals. That piece did not appear in the publication because the editors did not spot my email sending it to them! So I hereby resurrect it.
2. Mark Peranson, “The Lady Shanghaied”, Cinema Scope, no. 4 (Summer 2000), p. 40; part of a dossier of pieces on the film, including also Quintín and Geoff Pevere. back
3. See José Arroyo, “How Do You Solve a Problem like von Trier?”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 10 No. 9 (September 2000), pp. 14-16; and the Cinema Scope dossier, pp. 38-41. back
4. David Jays, “Blues in the Night”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 10 no. 9, September 2000, p. 19. back
6. Paul Willemen, “Note on Dancer in the Dark”. back
7. Leonard Maltin, Movie and Video Guide (New York: Signet, 2000), p. 1091. One of Popeye’s best songs (“He Needs Me”) was redeemed, at length, by Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love (2003). back
John Caughie, “Playing at Being American: Games and Tactics”, in Patricia
Mellencamp (ed.), Logics of Television:
Essays in Cultural Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990),
pp. 44-58. back
© Adrian Martin December 2000 / May 2003