CO-PRESENTED WITH KITCHEN THEATRE COMPANY – PRESS PLAY SERIES
Tues, Jan 30 at 7 pm – followed by talkback with KTC Theatre Artists
An east European girl goes to America with her young son, expecting it to be like a Hollywood film.
Director: Lars von Trier (as Lars Von Trier)
Writer: Lars von Trier (as Lars Von Trier)
Stars: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
”I’VE seen it all; there’s nothing left to see.” These words are sung, with keening defiance, by Selma, a Czech emigre working in a factory and raising her son alone somewhere in Eisenhower-era America, who is going blind from a hereditary disease. Her response to the impending loss of her sight is a joyful shrug: ”To be perfectly honest, I really don’t care.”
The song — one of several written by the Icelandic pop singer Bjork, who plays Selma, and Lars von Trier, the Danish director of ”Dancer in the Dark” — expresses a sentiment that seems to attack the most basic foundations of the movie, indeed of cinema itself, which is after all an art built around the miraculous act of seeing.
It’s a suitably paradoxical sentiment. Mr. von Trier is a belated outrider of the 20th-century European avant-garde, suspicious of the very possibility of novelty and desperate to make something new, hungry for an audience yet proudly contemptuous of his audience’s complacency. His recent films — ”Breaking the Waves,” ”The Idiots” and now ”Dancer in the Dark,” which opens the 38th New York Film Festival tonight and will be released commercially beginning tomorrow — induce powerful, even unbearable emotions but refuse, in the usual sense, to move you. At the end you are exactly where you were to start with: in the dark.
And this may be the point. Where else should a movie leave you? Why should you expect to be transported? Mr. von Trier is, among other things, a chief propagandist of the Dogma movement, a flamboyantly literal-minded approach to filmmaking aimed at smashing everything jaded and phony about contemporary cinema. He has now used the movement’s precepts to make an entirely self-enclosed, willfully artificial and curiously stylized picture.
The emerging critical line on ”Dancer in the Dark” is that it will polarize audiences, that you’ll either love it or hate it. And while it’s true that this is a film about which no one can remain neutral, it’s also true that neutrality is not the same as ambivalence. The movie is both stupefyingly bad and utterly overpowering; it can elicit, sometimes within a single scene, a gasp of rapture and a spasm of revulsion. Come to the theater prepared, with a handkerchief in one hand and a rotten tomato in the other.
The notorious Dogma rules challenge the conventions of cinematic illusionism by insisting on hand-held cameras and naturally occurring light and sound. ”Dancer in the Dark,” like any worthwhile piece of art, flouts its own enabling aesthetic rules at will. It harks back to the florid melodramas and opulent MGM musicals of the 1950’s, but with a dogmatic twist.
The musical numbers, which take place in Selma’s imagination to the found music of machinery, train wheels and her own heartbeat, were shot with 100 stationary digital video cameras. Their coming is signaled by a subtle shift in the film’s palette, as the washed-out, beige hues of everyday life suddenly glow like an old revival-house print of ”Singin’ in the Rain.”
Over the course of more than two hours the viewer is thrown from moments of harrowing realism — scenes whose jumpy rhythm and raw immediacy make you feel as if you’re peeking through the window at a moment of private misery — to flights of fantastic absurdity. The one constant presence, and the single force that keeps the movie from collapsing under its contradictory ambitions, is Selma.
If you saw ”Breaking the Waves,” which had its United States premiere at this festival in 1996, then you may think you’ve seen her before. Once again Mr. von Trier has imagined a stubborn, simple-minded woman who is also the embodiment of selfless, innocent goodness and has trained his digital camera on her utter and systematic annihilation.
Selma’s son, Gene, suffers from the same condition she does. In addition to her job making metal sinks at a tool-and-die factory, she cards bobby pins, saving her money for the operation that will save the boy’s sight. At first she seems to dwell in a cocoon of protection, looked after by her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), her infatuated co-worker Jeff (Peter Stomare) and a local policeman and his wife (David Morse and Cara Seymour), from whom she rents her sparsely furnished trailer.
Selma spends her evenings rehearsing the part of Maria in a community theater production of ”The Sound of Music” and her spare time at the movies, where Kathy tells her what’s happening on screen and, in a lovely moment, dances her fingers across Selma’s palm to convey the spirit of a Busby Berkeley dance number.
But soon Selma is sucked into a vortex of misfortune that — through a sequence of events that don’t withstand the slightest skeptical scrutiny — lands her on death row. The sheer improbability of the story is a sign of Mr. von Trier’s audacity. I don’t think he expects anyone to swallow the business about the eye disease (which must be corrected before a victim’s 13th birthday), or a murder trial that seems to have been inspired by watching poorly dubbed episodes of ”Law and Order” on Danish television.
He seems rather to be conducting a diabolical experiment, to determine if the virtuosic brutality of his style can manipulate the audience into feeling what it cannot believe. And the experiment is remarkably successful, especially in the film’s devastating final scenes.
If nothing else, Mr. von Trier is a brilliant engineer of dread; Selma’s every moment seems to contain the possibility of suffering, humiliation or betrayal. She wears her guileless, faltering vulnerability like a target on her back, and the movie follows her through the stations of her martyrdom like a medieval pageant.
And once again Mr. von Trier’s methods elicit a performance from his lead actress that deserves to be called miraculous. Like Emily Watson in ”Breaking the Waves,” Bjork, in her movie debut, seems to be inventing a new style of film acting, if not an entirely new kind of human being. Her eyes are obscured behind thick glasses and the high cliffs of her cheekbones, but Selma’s capacity for feeling — for joy as well as agony and terror — overwhelms her mousiness.
When she hears a song she likes, her tongue darts out between her teeth, and her anxiety registers in her hands and in the tendons of her neck.
Like Ms. Watson’s Bess McNeal in ”Breaking the Waves,” Selma is sacrificed on the altar of intellectual bad faith. The earlier film was about the collision between repressive religious orthodoxy and pagan sexual spiritualism, and this one posits an equally schematic conflict between the liberating power of pure imagination and the intractable authority of the market and the state.
It may be, though, that the real struggle we’re witnessing on screen is between Bjork and Mr. von Trier, between artistic conviction and aestheticized cynicism. It’s hard to say who wins, and impossible to avert our eyes. ”Dancer in the Dark” is one of the most sadistic films I’ve ever seen, but it also raises the possibility that sadism might be, in spite of itself, a species of love.
-A.O. SCOTT, NY TIMES