Dancer in the Dark

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 30 12:32:30 MST 2000

Dancer in the Dark
Directed and written by Lars von Trier.

With Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, and
Jean-Marc Barr.

Rating * *

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

To put it in the singsongy fashion of its own tacky musical numbers, Lars
von Trier's Dancer in the Dark enrages as well as engages, but I must
confess that it also fascinates with its capacity to elicit extreme
reactions. Ever since this musical about a woman from communist
Czechoslovakia working in an American factory won the Palme d'Or and best
actress prize (for rock star Bjork) from a Cannes jury headed by Luc Besson
-- one of the only Europudding directors who's both crass and clever enough
to rival von Trier as the most shameless sensationalist around -- it has
provoked hysterical reactions, pro as well as con. Viewers are struck by
its technology (it was allegedly shot with 100 stationary digital cameras)
as well as its aesthetics, its setting and social aspects, and its
melodramatic story, not to mention its musical numbers. Though the movie
certainly has its American defenders, many of its most vociferous
detractors come from this country too. It's not too surprising considering
that this movie offers a horrific view of the American justice system, one
you'd expect to find in an east European propaganda film shot 40 or 50
years ago. The musical numbers reek of some of the same flavor and
intolerant anticommunist Americans are much in evidence. Von Trier -- a
Dane who has never set foot in this country and has no intention of doing
so because of his aversion to planes -- had communist parents who
considered musicals capitalist rubbish, and Singin' in the Rain provided
one of his formative childhood experiences. Something personal as well as
highly exploitative is being worked out here, and watching it spread like a
virus across the screen and 139 minutes is part of its fascination.

In a way, von Trier's postmodern blend of national flavors is one way of
acknowledging that nationalities are beginning to die out -- that
multinational companies, not national governments, are making most of the
decisions that count nowadays, including those that map out our futures.
For a Danish filmmaker to make it in movies, switching to the English
language and opting for an American setting, even an ersatz one, are a
necessary part of the game; so are gimmicks like the Dogma 95 Manifesto,
the call for a technically austere cinema, which worked on the credulous
American press exactly the way it was designed to when von Trier and Thomas
Vinterberg turned up in Cannes five years ago with The Idiots and The
Celebration, respectively. (Not surprisingly, both filmmakers discarded the
same gimmick as soon as it registered, and others have been picking it up
ever since, sometimes with similar motivations.)

It's ironic that nationality is disappearing now that this country is more
culturally isolationist than it's ever been. But the difference between,
say, a Steven Spielberg and a Lars von Trier has become increasingly
esoteric; indeed, when one hears that Spielberg has been showing interest
in making a Dogma film, it's clear that one major multinational hustler has
been successfully conned by another one who's still on the rise.

About those 100 stationary digital cameras: admittedly von Trier showed
some talent for technical innovation in Zentropa, but given his equally
demonstrated talent for publicity stunts, I hope I can be forgiven for a
certain skepticism. The highly gifted Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller is
credited as director of photography and von Trier is listed as the only
camera operator. What role did Müller play exactly? And can we trust the
implied claim that 100 cameras were used in every shot, or were they
employed only at certain junctures, such as in the musical numbers? Even if
all hundred were used only during the numbers, it still sounds like a
spectacular waste of resources, because it doesn't look like the fruits of
more than a dozen turned up in the final edit. And when it comes to certain
nonmusical scenes in cramped spaces, such as those in the heroine's
trailer, it's particularly hard to figure out how so many cameras could
have been used without any of them becoming visible. Frankly, the whole bit
sounds like the latest version of Dogma 95 -- a way to get acres of press
coverage from yokels who can't be bothered with more subtle notions of film
aesthetics. (Did Sony foot the bill in exchange for free advertising?)

The implication of the multiple cameras is that they gave von Trier more
choices when it came to editing. But since von Trier, more economist than
aesthete, edits the results like the sloppiest of music videos -- with
rapid and frequent jump cuts between diverse angles often calling more
attention to the show-offy technique than to the story or Bjork's
performance -- the extra choices lead to a greater sense of chaos. And
because the choices are basically between various shots that all have lousy
resolution and definition, the losses in abandoning 35-millimeter cameras
seem greater than the gains.

Bjork -- a pop sprite with a Raggedy Ann appearance, an ethereal voice,
and, judging from her score in this movie, not much aptitude for a catchy
tune -- is Icelandic, but von Trier has made her a Czech immigrant without
worrying too much about her accent. With a comparable sense of
practicality, he cast Catherine Deneuve, a French superstar who usually
signifies glitz, in a part originally scripted for the character of a poor
black woman -- the Czech woman's best friend and coworker. In Film Comment,
Gavin Smith noted that "of the 13 leading actors, only five are American,
and the rest are Icelandic, French, Swedish, English, French-Canadian and
German. This is less a question of melting-pot realism than pastiche, and
the main ingredient in this pastiche is the musical genre itself." Another
ingredient, one informing the casting as well as the plot, is boilerplate

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Louis Proyect
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