[Written for Reel.com]
How strange that two of the movies I’ve liked best and been most surprised by at Cannes 2000 should turn out to be mutant forms of the musical. The Coens’ song-filled O Brother, Where Art Thou? taps into the power of mythic storytelling, the kind of exhilarating power that drives journeys from Homer’s Odyssey to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels — both sources for O Brother’s down-and-dirty musical drift through an economically depressed America teetering on a future we’ve come, for better and worse, to live in.
Everything is foretold or foreseen in such “road stories.” What’s afoot is sheer, lowdown satisfaction in the syncopated narrative rhythm of risk, survival, transformation: a rhythm which cumulatively re-adjusts some aspect of the human community that’s gotten way out of whack — variations on “Once upon a time … they all lived happily ever after.” From a rapt circle around the tribal fire to modern-day theater-in-the-round, such fictional purity — the arc of adventure and coming home — can be relied upon to keep the dark momentarily at bay.
The Quixotes and Sancho Panzas who carry us through these necessary fictions aren’t always extraordinarily heroic, saintly, or even particularly self-aware types. Our three stooges here (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) are cracked vessels brimming with human vanity and vague aspirations to goodness. Escaped convicts on the trail of treasure at the height of the Depression, their event-filled flight from a demonic lawman takes these endearingly dim bulbs through a symbolic Southland that’s American dream and nightmare.
In O Brother’s comic opera, slapstick and pratfalls can be pure corn — or as fatal as a hanging. The superb Depression-era music, courtesy of T Bone Burnett, literally colors and moves a picaresque tale punctuated by the appearance of blind prophets, sirens, a “cyclops,” and the Ku Klux Klan. Eventually, the Coens’ clueless trio — with the addition of a black guitar player who’s sold his soul to the devil! — achieve accidental (popcult) redemption through crowd-pleasing song and dance. Yes, it’s manipulation, and the pol they redeem in the public eye is a Huey Long-type, but the Coens mean for us to understand that there’s always a fly in the ointment of happy endings. Has to be, so that there’s a reason for the next “Once upon a time….”
The flood (for FDR’s public-works TVA dam) that almost ends this extraordinary parable marks the momentary cleansing of the little part of the world where our wandering boys have found work and home ground instead of illusory bank loot. O Brother, Where Art Thou? unspools with smart freshness and hip innocence; in our tragically ironic, postmodernist times, the Coens celebrate brand-new life within an unfashionable, deceptively simple form of fiction.
Tonight Cannes’s jury decides which of 20-plus films in competition (mostly from Europe and Asia) deserves the Palme d’Ôr. From my point of view, the top prize could happily grace either O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the equally challenging Dancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier’s tear-jerking proletarian musical, with compositions provided by Icelandic singer Björk. The latter, uncategorizable creature stars as Selma, a nearly blind Czech immigrant who works in a Washington state factory (Sweden stands in for the Northwest setting), squirreling away money for an operation that will save her son’s congenitally bad eyesight. Surrounding Selma and her son is a small community of friends and protectors: Kathy, another European immigrant (improbably, Catherine Deneuve); would-be suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare), as slow and sweet as Selma; and her landlords, a cop (David Morse) and his spendthrift wife (Cara Seymour).
Björk plays Selma as holy fool, a Chaplinesque innocent with a tremulous, ready-to-be-martyred smile very like Emily Watson’s in Breaking the Waves. Stuck in what might be hell — deadening factory work, her darkening world — Selma daydreams her way into an old-movie notion of heaven. Catching the beat from everyday sounds, she transforms her immediate environment into song-and-dance extravaganzas, through which she not only takes flight but also finds expressive form for her increasingly tragic experiences — the impact of which this nearly mute soul could never articulate in words. Thus, when betrayal strikes from an unexpected source and Selma finds herself cast as inadvertent killer, her childlike wish for a different plot simply choreographs a song/dance in reverse-motion. Corpse and killer duet gracefully backwards, toward a happier ending? beginning?
Dancer in the Dark’s set-piece musical numbers are huge and diffuse (reputedly, 100 video cameras were utilized to shoot them): the “stages” — factory floors, railroad flatcars in motion, courtrooms — are never really delineated, embracing so much natural space that the conventional artifice of choreographed dance seems to disappear, or perhaps mutates into something like a naïf’s uncontained imagination of the art form. The songs are often free-associational commentary, the equivalent of Selma’s dreaming mind trying to come to terms with recalcitrant, punishing reality.
The result (accentuated by von Trier’s Dogma-driven use of handheld camera and digital filmwork) is an odd mixture, both stylized and raw, a cinematic vision that has to do with the involuntary desire to shape clay, the ugly lumpishness of brute life, into something more. It’s as much a religious impulse, a desire for salvation, in Björk’s Dancer in the Dark as it was in Emily Watson’s luminous sacrificial lamb in Breaking the Waves. Selma’s apotheosis as a kind of capital punishment Joan of Arc is grotesque to the max; but even in her extremity, von Trier’s strange creation marries horror and cathartic performance: Björk’s heartbreaking “Next to Last Song” makes a musical prelude of Dancer’s dark ending.
2020: Dancer in the Dark had a bright ending, winning the top prize and a best-actress trophy for Björk