Dancer in the Dark

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.


Friday,September 22,2000




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

system. Huh?

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,


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2 Responses to Dancer in the Dark

  1. Sarah says:

    What did you think of LVT’s new one: Dogville?

  2. Felix says:

    Dogville, Sarah, is one of those few films which is released before being released in the US. I’ll let you know when I see it!

Comments are closed.