The experience of seeing Lar Von Triers’ “Dancer in the Dark” on the big screen was so overwhelming, it left me numb and drained in my seat. I took my friend Jenn with me to see it, on a let’s-go-catch-a-movie whim. The experience left us both stunned. For some reason, we were both drawn to Von Triers’ deconstructive, knowingly post-modernist and defiantly different musical melodrama.
The word of mouth on it, coming out of Cannes and leading up to its art house release, was both ecstatic and toxic. I couldn’t resist the promise of “the Bjork musical,” one which had inspired angry boos and rapturous applause at it s premiere, where it won the coveted Palm D’Or (Best Picture) and Bjork the Best Actress award. Jenn and I saw it at the Esquire theater in Denver, on a giant screen that is slowly unveiled behind an equally massive red curtain that rolls open before every screening. I’ve seen “2001-A Space Odyssey,” “The Tree of Life” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” on this screen, which makes every film a grand and immersive event.
“Dancer in the Dark” is the story of Selma, played by Bjork in a once-in-a-lifetime performance. Selma is a single mother, works in a factory and is losing her eye sight. Her best friend (played by Catherine Deneuve, whose undeniable glamour is a distraction but conveys such warmth it doesn’t matter) takes her to the movies and often must describe the action taking place on the big screen. Selma is, clumsily, playing the role of Maria in a bad community theater production of “The Sound of Music” and saving up money for an operation that could restore her sight. A seemingly kind neighbor (David Morse) discovers Selma’s savings, which is when things begin to turn for the worse.
The first musical comes in at around the hour mark and, purposely, takes you off guard. Von Triers, in a playful but defiant manner, means to take his audience out of their comfort zone, in a manner similar to Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematic deconstruction. While the music numbers have a strange but genuine beauty and invention in their staging, they posses a Dennis Potter-like purpose; in the same way “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Singing Detective” interlaced offbeat musical numbers, “Dancer in the Dark” has musical interludes that suggest Selma’s mindset, as the numbers give her (and us) a mental escape from the horrors occurring in her everyday life.
Bjork is amazing, giving her all to a fragile, endearing soul who cruelly endures one set back after another. The running time and the increasingly grim nature of the story will wear you down but, as punishing as this gets, Von Triers’ tough, hypnotic and deeply felt work is a must for adventurous film goers. It means to rattle you and does. The melodrama is utterly contrived and often hard to swallow but it still pulls you in. The songs, and their unorthodox presentation, are weird and gorgeous, particularly “New World,” the theme that plays over the stunning prologue and end credits. There’s also a wonderful bit that utilizes Joel Grey, in a manner that reflects his musical theater legacy and, like Selma, gives us a moment of mental release.
In a way, the film is a big dare, testing the audience to see how much they can take, how far they can go. Von Triers is both a provocateur, playing a game of chicken with his audience’s emotions, but he’s also fully acknowledging how films work. If every movie is manipulative, then here’s one that, in a sense, is about how fully film can immerse/mess with us.
After the end credits had finished rolling and the lights slowly came up, Jenn and I were just sitting in our seats, staring numbly straight ahead. It took us both a moment to remark on what we had just witnessed. Days after wards, we spoke of the film with a smile, as it gave us both such a unique, surprisingly impacting time at the cinema. It was a movie we survived together.