The vast majority of the people I know in New York seem to have both
seen and loved Dancer in the Dark. But one or two have hated it,
including Jonathan Foreman, of the New York Post.
One of Jonathan’s theories is that the reason it’s gone down
so well is that the Upper West Side intelligentsia never normally goes
to tear-jerker., When they do, and especially when the film says "Palm
D’Or Winner" and "Lars von Trier" on it, our sheltered
cinephiles assume that whatever they’re watching must be Good Art.
There might be something to this theory — I can think of no other
reason why Philadelphia would have won any Oscars, or been so broadly
admired. But I have to say, I think the real reason that people love the
film so much is because it’s really good.
Anyway, this is what Jonathan has
to say in the New York Post. I’m reprinting it here, in blatant
violation of Rupert Murdoch’s copyright; apologies, Rupert.
DRECK DRESSED AS ART
By JONATHAN FOREMAN
DANCER IN THE DARK
Lars von Trier’s controversial musical tragedy is manipulative
schlock decked out in the trappings of art.Running time: 139 minutes.
Rated R. Lincoln Plaza, Union Square, City Cinemas.IF it weren’t
for a terrific central performance by the Icelandic pop singer Bjork,
“Dancer in the Dark” would be all but unwatchable. As it is, the controversial
winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – which
opens tonight’s NewYork Film Festival at Lincoln Center – is as meretricious
a piece of fakery as ever beguiled a festival audience.
Kitschy schlock gussied up with the trappings of artsiness
and buttressed with canned anti-American politics, it shares nothing
with Lars von Trier’s powerful “Breaking the Waves” – except another
dim child-woman heroine who destroys herself in an avoidable act of
It’s so unrelenting in its manipulative sentimentality
that, if it had been made by an American and shot in a more conventional
manner, it would be seen as a bad joke.
Its musical and dance sequences are so poorly performed
and shot, they work neither as homage to the genre nor as an ironical
deconstruction of it.
Worse still, the whole story groans with cheap irony and
is laced with a superficial, reflexive anti-Americanism: If the story
makes any sense at all, it’s as a heavy-handed indictment of America’s
failure to provide free health care and legal services – not to mention
its use of the death penalty, its fascination with guns, its crass anticommunism,
The place is the American Northwest; the time, the early
’60s. Selma (Bjork) is an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who works in
an East European-looking factory that churns out tin trays 24 hours
a day. Though she tries to hide it, she is gradually going blind, thanks
to a hereditary condition, and only the help of her best friend, Kathy
(Catherine Deneuve), prevents her from losing her job.
Unknown to anyone, Selma is secretly saving her wages
from the factory to pay for an operation that will ensure her 12-year-old
son, Gene, who doesn’t know he has inherited the condition, keeps his
sight. As her vision fails, she starts to work double shifts at the
factory, while continuing to rehearse for her role as Maria in the local
production of “The Sound of Music.”
Exhausted, she daydreams constantly, and in those dreams,
people around her behave just like the people in her beloved musicals,
suddenly bursting into song and dance.
“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens,” says Selma
– who presumably never saw “West Side Story.” As if to underline the
point that the traditional musical is a kind of cultural opiate designed
to distract people from dreadful reality, Selma’s real life is shot
in dreary video; the dream sequences are shot in luxurious color.
Then things really start going wrong. Her seemingly nice
landlord (David Morse) turns out to be a monster, or at least a man
driven by financial pressures and a wife’s boundless consumerism to
commit a terrible crime. (That’s capitalism for you.) His act prompts
Selma to make a series of disastrous and increasingly ridiculous choices
that land her on death row.
In “Breaking the Waves,” you understood why Emily Watson’s
character behaved the way she did. Here, the female victim-martyr suffers
mainly to serve the requirements of an absurd plot that could come straight
out of a particularly sentimental Victorian novel (think the death of
Dickens’ “Little Nell”).
With the exception of Bjork’s extraordinary turn as Selma
and Deneuve’s raw performance as Kathy, the acting is of extremely variable
quality. And von Trier’s use of 100 cameras in the dance sequences fails
to produce imagery of any particular beauty or interest.
First, we must note what Jonathan didn’t write, even accounting
for space considerations. He didn’t write that Bjork, as well as
turning in an amazing performance for any actress, let alone a first-time
one, also manages the unprecedented act of writing and performing all
her own songs in the film. She was intimately involved in the whole thing,
and the seamlessness of the songs, the performance, and her performance
of the songs is part of what makes the film great. Now I love the soundtrack
CD, and I think the songs are amazing quite regardless of how good the
film is. But it does seem a bit much to review a musical without ever
mentioning the songs.
But what did our friend write? We’ll excuse him the headline, which
was probably the work of someone else. But that doesn’t excuse much.
First, we get "manipulative schlock decked out in the trappings of
art." I don’t know what Jonathan considers
"the trappings of art," but it’s not exactly what I saw
up on screen. Beautifully-framed shots? No, none of those in sight, except
for maybe a couple of cut-aways in the musical sequences. Portentious
pretentiousness? None of that either. Any time the film threatens to come
close, it rescues itself with a musical sequence.
No, I think what Jonathan means when he talks of his "trappings"
is no more and no less than the whole Dogma look — the hand-held
camera, the muted colours of digital video, the lack of a soundtrack (itself
revolutionary in a musical). I know this isn’t officially a Dogma
film, but there’s definitely a lot of that ethos in there. And while
Dogma might be an art-house movement, I hardly consider it fair to reverse-engineer
the look, as it were, and call it art.
One word about the hand-held camera: a colleague of mine got quite nauseous
watching the film, and certainly it took a bit of getting used to. One
would think that after the spate of Dogma films, not to mention The
Blair Witch Project, we’d be used to it by now. But it would seem
that the disorienting effect is still there. I think it worked to better
effect in Breaking the Waves, where the jerkiness and confusion
at the beginning was slowly transformed into beatific still shots at the
Breaking the Waves was much more of a work of art than Dancer
in the Dark, I think. It had a structure and an overarching theme
and characters and got you thinking profound thoughts about human nature
— whereas Dancer is both less and more. I don’t think
it’s really capable of changing one’s life in the way that Breaking
the Waves could and did. But it’s also more personally touching
than that film: Selma is a more sympathetic character than Emily Watson’s
While it’s true, as Jonathan points out, that the two films are
similar in many ways, ultimately Selma’s motivation is comprehensible
without recourse to supernatural interventions, which has to make her
actions that much easier to understand. And while Selma’s refusal
to break the late Bill’s confidence on the witness stand is incomprehensible,
her conviction that her son’s sight is more important than her being
able to spend the rest of her life behind bars is not.Virtually all Bess’s
actions, on the other hand, make no rational sense at all.
That’s why you’ve got to laugh, really, when you read that
Emily Watson’s behaviour in Breaking the Waves was understandable,
whereas Bjork’s in Dancer are not; that the latter, indeed,
has an "absurd plot." The idea that having pathologically suicidal
promiscuous sex could cure one’s husband of a fatal injury is not
absurd, then. Yet the idea that a mother would sacrifice herself for her
son’s well-being is ridiculous. I’m not saying the plot is a
paragon of verisimilitude: I’m just saying this is a Lars von Trier
film. Udo Kier is much more realistic here than he is as a 12 foot tall
newborn baby in The Kingdom, I can tell you that much.
Anyway, we must move on to Jonathan’s next brickbat, "unwatchable."
I don’t know what that means, at least not insofar as it can’t
be applied to any Dogma-ethos film. But never mind, he’s running
on: "as meretricious a piece of fakery as ever beguiled a festival
audience." Oh, you know those festival audiences, so easily swayed
by superficiality and fakery; we, of course, know better.
But "meretricious"? That’s an interesting word to use,
especially considering that later on in the review the film is panned
for its "East European looking factory" and its "dreary
video." I mean, make your mind up, Foreman: is this a showy piece
of style over substance, or is this a badly-put-together piece of dullness?
I guess it’s the former: you do go on to call it "kitschy schlock
gussied up with the trappings of artiness." It’s not kitschy;
I don’t think it’s possible for a film shot on handheld video
with a colour palette of browns and greys to be kitschy. As for the schlock,
yes, well, there’s definitely tears being jerked. But hello?
It’s a musical, ferchrissakes! The musical form is inherently schlocky.
I defy you to say your heart didn’t jump at least a little bit when
Joel Grey started tap-dancing on the judge’s desk in the courtroom.
That’s a great scene of musical cinema, and no more schlocky than
any number of scenes from, oh, say A Clockwork Orange. The problem
here is not Upper West Siders unable to tear themselves from a tearjerker.
No, I think the real problem is much more likely to be overly cynical
film reviewers failing to take a Joel Grey tapdancing scene on its own,
perfectly obvious, perfectly superficial, and perfectly fabulous merits.
But I love the "gussied". Ties in nicely with the "meretricious".
The "canned anti-American politics" is really the sort of thing
which only a former New York Post leader-writer, espying reds under every
bed, could ever see in this film. A Czech woman leaves her beloved homeland
for the United States because only here can she get the necessary medical
treatment for her son — treatment, incidentally, which is provided
by a compatriot who presumably left for similar reasons. And what does
this show? That’s right, the mercilessness of the American healthcare
Selma makes a comment, which we never hear, about her still loving her
homeland — this is 1964, remember — and the film is now anti-anti-communist.
She makes another comment about Bill keeping his gun in the house, just
because she is very concerned on the grounds he’s told her he’s
thinking of killing himself. Presto, the film is anti-gun. She is unjustly
hanged, and it’s anti death penalty. Well, I’ll grant you that
it’s anti the death penalty, but there isn’t exactly a surfeit
of films in favour. All films with the death penalty in them are against
it, pretty much. And quite right too.
The review even manages to imply that portraying musicals as "a
kind of cultural opiate designed to distract people from dreadful reality"
is somehow anti-American. I mean, I might have lost the scathing neo-realist
subtext of Guys and Dolls, but isn’t that the whole point
of Hollywood? The difference between the scenes in rapidly-deteriorating
real life and those in Selma’s rich imagination is just that, Jonathan,
it’s not an oblique swipe at the entire output of the American film
industry. The rehearsals for The Sound of Music are shot lovingly;
you can almost imagine them being dropped into an Alan Ayckbourne film.
They’re not eviscerating a backwards community’s pathetic attempt
to reproduce the glamour of Hollywood.
The story "groans with cheap irony"? Once again, Jonathan,
it’s a musical. All musicals groan with cheap irony, or at
least use it. I don’t think this one groans: is it cheap when Bill
pretends to shut the door behind him but stays instead in the trailer?
It’s perfectly justifiable dramatic irony, I think: we see, quite
literally, something our heroine can’t. You’ve simply decided
that the film’s irony is "groaning" just because you don’t
like the film.
"Unrelenting in its manipulative sentimentality?" I’ll
give you that one, at least as far as the second half of the film is concerned.
And, like you, I abjure such films, as a rule. But this is the exception.
And the musical sequences being poorly performed and shot? That’s
an interesting one. They certainly didn’t pack the punch of the ones
we saw Selma enjoying so much in the cinema, or even the ones in Woody
Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. But at the same time, there
was a rawness to them which nicely complemented Bjork’s singing voice.
Personally, I could have done with a bit more polish, but what do you
expect on a budget of $12 million?
Even allowing for the fact that I’ve allowed myself much more space than
you are given, I think my attitudes towards the film are more subtle than
yours. I don’t rate it as highly as I do Breaking the Waves;
on that we can agree. I do, however, rate it higher than Crime and
Punishment in Suburbia, a forgettable teen flick notable only for
some intermittently cool photography, to which you gave a higher rating.
And yes, it’s even better than Gladiator, which you gave the
highest rating of any recent film you’ve reviewed, and which is mainly
notable for a great final performance from Oliver Reed and some CGI which
probably cost more per sequence than all of Dancer put together.
I guess I’m just confused about why Dancer is such a polarizing
film. Everybody I know either loves it or hates it, with roughly equal
amounts of vehemence on either side. Everybody but Amy, interestingly
enough, who has a lot of good things to say about the film even if she
giggled at the end. Maybe, in time, it’s going to turn out to be
one of those films like Eyes Wide Shut, which with hindsight turn
out not to be as bad as their detractors said, and not as great as their
cheerleaders would have had them either. And maybe, like with Eyes
Wide Shut, a lot of the negative reaction to Dancer is really
a negative reaction to the hype that preceded it — enough, already
of the hagiographies in the New York Times Magazine!
Next time Lars von Trier releases a film, let it be a sleeper.
Let me know what you think;
I’ll post all comments here.
From: Geens, Stefan
Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2000 5:22 PM
To: Salmon, Felix
Subject: RE: Dancer in the Dark
The weird thing both with Jonathan’s and the New Republic’s
efforts are the unusually high number of sound bite-able derisive phrases
used to describe Dancer in the Dark. The problem with this technique
is that it is very easy just to retort “no it’s not,” and that’s the
end of the productive phase of the debate.
Jonathan needs to reconcile his dislike for the movie
with the fact that many normally stoic people who never cry in movies
ended up in tears at the end of Dancer and had the movie haunt them
for days afterwards. That kind of reaction to a film happens much too
rarely these days for Jonathan to be able to say that the Upper West
Side and most of Europe is being duped by a bad film.
In fact, denying the reality of a widespread intense
emotional reaction to the movie suggests that his definition of what’s
good art has not progessed to include the range of techniques used by
Von Trier and the empathic acting of Bjork that together result in an
enormous sense of doomed fragility about Selma. I understand that art
is not what the most people say it is, but in this case people aren’t
just saying it, they are feeling it too.
As an aside, I don’t usually like musicals–But Dancer
in the Dark is not so much a musical as a film about Selma’s use of
musicals to escape the harshest parts of her existence, and Von Trier
ensures that during the musical numbers we know we are witnessing her
flights of the imagination. It turns the concept of the musical from
a very literal and naive storytelling technique to an essential way
of explaining the subjective moods of the story’s protagonist. Cool,