[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
The great pleasure of Cannes is having no idea what you’re going to see, and knowing that you’re about to be one of the first in the world to see it. When the picture turns out to be absolutely extraordinary — a stylistically exhilarating vision that also sweeps up the entire 2,400-strong audience in the Salle Lumière in its emotional embrace — one’s first impulse is to wish the same experience for audiences around the world. In short, you don’t want to tell anybody about it, don’t want to foreclose their pleasure of discovery in any way. You just want to say, “When you have the chance, go!”
Dancer in the Dark was that film at Cannes 2000. The minute it ended — or should we say, with “the next-to-last song,” because endings can be unbearably sad — it seemed inconceivable that anything else should win the Palme d’Ôr, or that any performance other than Björk’s uncanny, otherworldly debut in the title role might be cited for best-actress honors. The festival was, chronologically, at its midpoint then. A lot could happen. And as a matter of fact, the next day’s Variety featured an astonishing slam of the film and, even more, its congenitally overweening auteur, Lars von Trier — a review whose wrongheadedness unified the rest of the festivalgoing community as fiercely as the film had. Dancer in the Dark remained the film to beat, and a week later, the occasional dust devil of rumor and speculation notwithstanding, nothing had emerged to beat it.
It seems an odd thing to say of a film casually identified as a musical, or a musical tragedy, but Dancer in the Dark recalls nothing so much as the spirit of the great silent films. Both its grandeur and the relentlessness of the fatalism driving its narrative seem to belong to another age. The movie runs two-and-a-half hours, and there’s not a minute of it that isn’t haunting or transporting, but its scenario could be summarized in a few lines. There are key plot points, there are certain fundamental things you need to know about certain characters, but most of the film resides in the stylistic arcs and spellbinding suspensions in-between. There is also a great deal we never know. For instance, how Selma (Björk), a 30ish childwoman from Czechoslovakia with fading eyesight, came to be the single mother of a preadolescent son. Or how she came to the Pacific Northwest (actually rural Sweden) to work in a factory alongside Kathy, another foreigner (a divinely dowdy Catherine Deneuve). Or who Jeff (Peter Stormare), Selma’s faithful, eternally unrequited suitor, is, or what he does when he isn’t waiting outside the factory to offer her a ride. Or why Bill (David Morse), who’s inherited an unspecified fortune, should continue to work as a local constable, or live in an unassuming house and rent out the trailer in his side yard to Selma and her boy. I mention these things now only because it seems so odd that the questions never arise while watching the movie. Its heart is elsewhere, and elsewhere is all that matters.
It has been reported that, although von Trier personally operated the camera for the dramatic scenes, he had as many as a hundred digital cameras recording the musical sequences. I can’t visualize that (how is it that none of them ended up in anybody else’s viewfinder?), but certainly there are moments when a cornucopia of images spills across the wide screen — most notably, a visual/spiritual tour de force in which a passing freight train becomes the vehicle for a Return of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers fantasia. Then again, it feels wrong to think of any scene in this movie as a musical sequence in the conventional sense. Although there was a choreographer (Vincent Paterson), nothing here would have passed muster in the most modest MGM musical of the golden age. As musical performances, the “numbers” in Dancer in the Dark — for which Robby Müller’s Breaking the Waves–fadey color palette slips into something like saturated Technicolor — are more like what we might expect from the little-theater group to which Selma and Kathy belong (Vincent Paterson plays their director), which is rehearsing a production of The Sound of Music. Von Trier’s strategy is to set his musical sights somewhere between the deliberately flat-footed, short-falling hommage of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman and the lyrical pastiche of Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand in The Young Girls of Rochefort. The camerawork and the cutting in these scenes achieve some kind of exultant arrhythmia — simultaneously gasping for air and reaching for the stars. This is no way to achieve beauty, yet there beauty is all the same, shining out at us.
This is good. I’m not telling you anything about “the story,” and I want to keep it that way. Suffice it to say that Dancer in the Dark describes a kind of pilgrimage akin to the movement of von Trier’s previous triumph, Breaking the Waves, albeit with another kind of energy and mystery standing in for that film’s sexuality and religion. The Icelandic singer Björk, who wrote the songs and beams eerily from the center of every scene, is no Shakespearean actress on the order of Emily Watson. Purists may argue whether she’s an actress at all; certainly von Trier, Deneuve, and the rest soon came to realize that she was living Selma’s story, it was happening to her every day on the set, and it freaked them out. Whether she acts here, whether she ever acts again, is really beside the point. This is a great film in an era that has all but forgotten such things, and it would have been inconceivable without her.