It is an exercise in the futility of words, writing about one of Lars von Trier's films. Or maybe an exercise in the futility of my own pen. I cannot think of another working director whose films are as razor-like in their ability to divide an audience. For every person like me - who found Dogville
to be the crowning filmic achievement of 2004 - there is a reciprocal, another person who found it be the lowest type of 24 FPS dreck possible. Von Trier's dense thematic material allows for readings that, while light-years away from each other, stand up as equally logical. His morals, methods, and subject matter could be argued as both reprehensible and revolutionary. To write about a von Trier film, if done right, is to be 100% correct while simultaneously being dead wrong.
Dancer in the Dark
is typically serpentine. It's about the death penalty; no, it's about the inhumane treatment of foreigners; no, it's about the real axis of evil - America; no, it's about honor & dishonor in the face of the death. Circumventing (and, to some degree, incorporating) all of these ideas, Dancer in the Dark
is about what it means to be a human living in this world.
Selma (Bjork) is a Czech woman, with a son, living in America. She has a degenerative eye disease and is saving up money so her son can get the operation he needs to avoid living with the blindness that plagues her. Selma is infatuated with that most American of genres - the Musical. When her eyesight sets sail, and her life turns dour, she tunes into the sounds around her, catching their rhythm and sliding off into her own musical world. It’s a bizarre idea - take a somber, digitally shot film and intersperse it with brash musical numbers sung by a brilliant, albeit strange, Icelandic pop star. This is division line #1. Is it cheesy? To some extent, yes. Are musicals in general - from Busby Berkeley to Baz Luhrmann - cheesy? To some extent, yes. It's entirely artificial, the juxtaposition of the realist Dogme style of most of the film versus the artifice of the musical numbers. Yet it works. Selma's musical wanderings are daydreams, temporary and utterly terminable. Each dream ends with Selma being snapped back to reality, returning to the hard locus of her daily grind. To some extent, this is von Trier's comment on the American Dream. That is, it's just that - a dream. He takes the musical - the premier genre of the depression era - and turns it on its head. This sentiment isn't anti-American, it's just anti-bullshit. His point is that the American Dream, or any dream for that matter, is a lie, or a facade that cannot be maintained. Sooner or later, you have to wake up.
As with many of von Trier's films, the female lead is subjected to all kinds of harsh treatment in Dancer in the Dark
. Without fail, this trick engenders sympathy for the character. In the case of Selma, this sympathy is not entirely warranted. Apparently von Trier and Bjork argued over how the character should be played. Bjork wanted Selma to be an intelligent, cognizant character, almost prescient in her knowledge of the implications and results of her actions. Von Trier wanted to elevate Selma;s naivete, highlighting the blind trust of the woman. Both readings are possible, but the latter holds up better to critical scrutiny. Selma, as callous as this sounds if you've seen the film, is just as responsible for the events as any other character. She refuses the help of the one person who cares for her - Jeff - and embraces the hardship of her life. Rather than dealing with this hardship, and attempting to better it, she goes on smiling and creating escapist scenarios for herself. The film is combative - the editing, cinematography, and scenario all begging for battle cries - but Selma remains docile, almost sedated in her acceptance. Selma constantly denies, and covers up, her blindness. This is a metaphor for her stubbornness in admitting that, rather than the American Dream, she's living a universal nightmare.
With the motif of money, Von Trier seems to be intimating that there is no way out of this nightmare. Selma's landlord is a supposedly rich man. He once had wealth, and both him and his wife were happy. But he ran out of money, and turned to thoughts of suicide. Selma saves up every last dime in order to better her son's life. Without ruining the film, this turns on her as well. Money is a false idol, a supposed exit door that is, in actuality, a dead end.
If someone told me that they hated Dancer in the Dark
, or Dogville
, or The Five Obstructions
, or even The Element of Crime
, I would completely understand. These are tough films to watch, and tough films to stomach. They point out glaring errors, inconsistencies, and evils inherent to humankind. But to watch them is to mimetically confront your own demons. With Dancer in the Dark
, whether enjoyed or not, von Trier is saying something about the human condition. Ergo, something important. That in and of itself is worthy of respect.