I'm feeling more and more estranged from my artier colleagues. When the improvised Japanese film M/Other won the FIPRESCI jury prize at Cannes 99 as best film outside of Competition, I thought, "Are these people insane?"
When the same jury honoured the 217-minute Eureka as best film in Competition this year, I headed off to catch it on the last day, and then staggered out thinking, "Are these people insane?"
When Lars von Trier won the Palme d'Or this year for Dancer In The Dark, I thought, "Well, there you go. They've gotten von Trier off the festival's back." Von Trier is extremely smart and very talented, but I suspect he studied film festival etiquette with Spike Lee. When his masterpiece, Europa, won the Prix Technique in 91 (the year Barton Fink won the Palme), he thanked "the midget," referring to jury president Roman Polanski.
Bizarre contrivances Well, now that I've seen Dancer In The Dark, I'm thinking, "Are these people insane?"
Dancer In The Dark is a musical starring Björk. She wrote the music and plays a Czech immigrant in early-60s Washington State who's obsessed with musicals, is going blind and saving her money for an operation for her 13-year-old son, who will go blind, too, unless he has the operation soon. But she gets robbed and, in the process of retrieving her cash, finds herself on trial for murder.
We'll ignore, for the moment, that the plot hinges on bizarre contrivances and misunderstandings about the American judicial system -- the banking system, too, come to think of it. Criticizing a musical for its plot is like criticizing a basketball player because he can't hit a curve ball. And, as von Trier has never been to the U.S. -- he refuses to fly -- his America is an imaginary place, like Freedonia or Atlantis.
Instead, we'll start with his decision to film Dancer on digital video. Film, if used by someone with half an eye and access to a couple of lights, generally looks better than the real world. Digital video, projected on the big screen, invariably looks worse than the real world. If film creates a window on the world, digital video puts a a coarse-grained screen in front of it.
Extending the shaky-cam techniques of Breaking The Waves, von Trier has made one of the ugliest films I've ever seen from a major director.
I understand the authenticity argument that comes attached to the Dogme manifesto (Dancer may not be a Dogme film, but it is a cousin), a familiar argument that emerges when a technological advance (in this case digital video) allows filmmakers to escape Hollywood-type studio strictures. The development of 35mm cameras that were light enough to go hand-held helped create the French New Wave, for example. And outside is always equated with authentic.
While "keeping it real" may be an odd credo for someone directing a musical, "authenticity" makes a handy shield when a film's images are grainy, the framing is peculiar and the cutting is sloppy -- though I'm sure von Trier agonized over the editing.
Von Trier has enormous technique at his command. His earlier films, like The Element Of Crime and Europa, show a director with almost indecent assurance and an obsession with the sort of visual grandeur most often found in Orson Welles's films. Putting that skill at the service of a film that looks like Blair Witch: The Musical reminds me of Dolly Parton's famous observation that "people don't appreciate how expensive it is to look this cheap."
True saints More interesting, though, is the von Trier heroine, here Björk, or Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves -- a saint who remains true to herself and makes an enormous sacrifice.
When we first see Björk's Selma in Dancer she's onstage rehearsing a local theatre production in which she has, improbably, been cast as Maria in The Sound Of Music. With her thick glasses and awkward movement -- we later discover she's losing her sight -- she seems to be some kind of local simpleton. When we first see Watson's Bess in Breaking the Waves, she's talking to God -- and answering for him.
Selma is a monomaniac. She's not changed or transformed by her experiences, and she doesn't struggle to achieve spiritual purity. One can talk about her final decision in the film as a sacrifice, but there never seems to be any question that it may be the wrong choice. Like Watson's Bess, Selma doesn't earn her saintliness -- it's imposed on her by the screenwriter.
One wonders why, in von Trier's world, there's such an unnerving correspondence between purity of intention and mental disorder. Von Trier, it seems, is either too smart to trust intelligence or too wised up to believe in the possibility of a person of normal intelligence reaching enlightenment.
Björk works very hard on this performance, and given that she's not a trained actor and plays a character operating at an emotional extreme, it's easy to see why she walked off the picture three times and at one point attacked von Trier physically. The only way to get this kind of performance from an amateur is by emotional terrorism -- she can't call on technique, since she doesn't have any.
Let me deal with a couple of things that have been said in praise of Dancer In The Dark.
Devastating criticism First, that it's a devastating criticism of the musical as a form. Well, big deal. The live-action musical is essentially a dead genre. And this film isn't nearly as unnerving an assault on the conventions and deceptions of the live-action musical as Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven was 20 years ago. For one thing, it seems less like a musical than a video remake of 1999's Cannes winner, Rosetta, only with occasional incursions from Björk videos.
Second, that it's a tough criticism of capital punishment. I don't think so. Von Trier has no understanding of the American judicial system.
Buy the soundtrack. Björk's songs are pretty good.
DANCER IN THE DARK, written and directed by Lars von Trier, produced by Vibeke Windeløv, with Björk, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare and David Morse. 138 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (October 6). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 82. Rating: N