in the Dark
September 23, 2000 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Full
It can be
asserted with no lack of certainty that Lars von Trier
creates some of the most annoying films out there today.
They are films that wallow in the depths of melodramatic
pity, exploiting sympathies for weak-minded women with
strong wills and odds stacked immeasurably against them.
They also take dead aim at established institutions
(government, church, male authority in general) and
render them into caricatures of insurmountable cruelty.
And most infamously, they utilize hand-held digital
video cameras with freewheeling abandon, so that the
dizzying movements can send an audience to nausea. The
combined effect is of exploitation, manipulation and
catharsis, something like a transcendent nightmare.
I had mixed
feelings about Breaking the Waves, on Trier's
most highly regarded film, when I first saw it, but
since then it has become one of my favorite films of
the past decade. That film boasted a fascinating female
lead with a vision of God that was both extraordiary
and ridiculous, setting up a morality play that challenged
audiences on all levels: visual, emotional, and theoretical.
Dancer in the Dark also features a female lead prone
to visions, though ironically she can hardly see. Played
by Bjork, Selma is a poor factory worker scrimping up
money to pay for her son's eye operation. She gets through
a gauntlet of trials and tribulations by daydreaming
musical sequences incorporating all that she sees around
her. Oddly enough, her musical visions do not so much
resemble the Hollywood musicals she professes to love,
but the proletarian work operas of the Communist Bloc.
there is much coincidence in this aesthetic resemblance,
since von Trier makes an effort to attack his own symbols
of latent capitalism, mostly embodied by corrupt authoritarian
males: a crooked cop, a ruthless prosecuting attorney.
He makes thinly veiled jabs at the failings of capitalism
(the cop driven to crime in trying to maintain his wife's
consumer lifestyle; a legal system that can only provide
fair defense to those who can afford it). Considering
as well that Selma is a Czech immigrant, it can be construed
that her musical visions are visions of communism. With
this much subtext figured out, speculation must now
be made on what it means to say that the musical sequences
are, decidely, poor.
in interviews von Trier claims to have a love for musicals,
I would feel that it is a token love at best. He resists
buying into the musical conceit, relying on Selma's
tendency to enter musical daydreams derived from the
ambient sounds surrounding her (machinery, trains) as
the mechanism for entering musical mode. And when he
is not ambivalent towards the genre and the film finally
enters musical mode, he doesn't demonstrate much deftness
with the song-and-dance numbers. The results range from
obvious (a Stomp-like number set to factory machinery)
to inspired (the sound of a choir echoing through a
ventilation shaft; Selma's eerie step-dance towards
the gallows). The much-lauded train sequence that utilized
100 digital camcorders is far less than what I expected
-- he just strategically placed several dozen cheap
camcorders to substitute for his lack of choreographic
inspiration. Though there are flases of brilliance in
some of these numbers, others rival only Communist operas
with the silliness of these numbers von Trier seems
to both parody and critique the utopian vision laden
in both Communism and musicals, as if both are to be
seen as antiquated idea(l)s that mock themselves in
the context of today's realty-driven capitalist society.
This connection is the most interesting thing about
the film, though in its cinematic execution, both visually
and emotionally, it is far less enthralling than Breaking
the Waves. There is a lack of the intrigue that
kept Breaking the Waves so watchable in spite
of its tumultuous camerawork. With a slight nod to Johnny
Belinda and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, everything
about this film seems predetermined. The film starts
out well, with a campy good-naturedness, as Selma rehearses
for her role as Maria in The Sound of Music with
Catherine Deneuve, playing a woman named Cathy, providing
moral support. From that point on, the fun and games
are over, and the story descends nto
a sadistically deliberate melodramatic plot. Her money
is stolen by a corrupt cop who discovers the location
of Selma's savings. Why
she never put the money in a bank account I'll never
know. But then, we wouldn't be treated to the melodramatic
image of her taking out an enormous wad of grubby bills
out of her pretty tin box.
who is more cruel: the corrupt cop in the film who exploits
Selma's disability, or von Trier for essentially doing
the same as director. The last act of the film is von
Trier's homage to Passion of Joan of Arc, and
by the end of the film I questioned not only von Trier's
but his mentor Carl Dreyer's intent on inflicting so
much suffering on their female leads. I wondered whether
or not holding up the martyr as a symbol of female strength
was dubious praise. Both their worlds seem custom made
to collapse upon their women, if only because the women
can take it.
the Dark is a significant step forward in the use of
digital video for film, but it is not the astral leap
that prerelase buzz has praised it to be. It is disappointing
that a film with tremendous visionary potential in its
premise never has a singular image that completely overwhelms.
Images are not von Trier's fortee; manipulating emotions
through the abuse of helpless women is. Who knows how
long he can keep that up.