Criterion Prediction #106: Dancer in the Dark, by Alexander Miller
Title: Dancer in the Dark
Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Udo Kier
Synopsis: Selma, a Czech immigrant, works in a factory to pay for her son’s eye surgery while she’s rapidly going blind. Her love for classic musicals becomes a source of escape from her life which takes a drastic turn when her savings are stolen.
Critique: Lars Von Trier is a director whose work can be brilliant and obnoxious. Sometimes it’s both but he’s challenging and innovative and Dancer in the Dark is one of his better efforts. While the debate of “misogynist v. pseudo-feminist” might be another element of the directors fledgling persona as a provocateur, if that’s the case let’s bypass that conundrum and chalk it up to Lars Von Trier’s slightly warped interpretation of the “fallen woman” narrative. He trades in the compassion felt in the works of Douglas Sirk or Kenji Mizoguchi in favor of a more Old Testament style fatalism.
Despite Björk’s instinctive charisma, the director’s insistence on provincial naiveté makes Selma feel so close to Emily Watson’s Bess from Breaking the Waves that it emits a whiff of objectivity.
But Björk’s contribution is in some ways the centerpiece of the film and, in tandem with the director, manages a sense of grounded merriment with the choreography and direction of the musical sequences. Given the shared reputations of Björk and Von Trier as unconventional artists, it’s no wonder their collaboration worked in a way that allowed each party to flex their creative chops and maintain creative autonomy.
Dancer in the Dark showcases a genuinely compelling contrast of manufactured realism (residual characteristics of the Dogme 95 manifesto) in a genre commonly steeped in artifice. Here it begets the fantastical spontaneity of breaking out into song and dance with unenforced credibility. The industrial backdrops in these routines carry a profound irony since our protagonist is a Czech immigrant whose fantasies evoke an atmosphere similar to the Soviet Bloc musicals (that Selma openly rejects in favor of Hollywood’s classics) featuring factory workers and farmers whose laboring is the choreography since dancing didn’t fit the parameters of Socialist Realism.
The director’s rejection of formal staging and decor makes the atmosphere of the film feel thin; perhaps this is a prelude for his Thornton Wilderesque Dogville? However, his meta approach services the momentum of the emotionally wrenching story; after all, the very mention of Dancer in the Dark is tear-inducing to anyone familiar with the material. The culmination of everything at work is a hazy fable that wallops a debilitating punch of emotional gravitas, deliberate, but one of the director’s strongest entries
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Dancer in the Dark has been a frequent subject in forums and wish lists for a Criterion release and for a good reason; Lars Von Trier is a prominent filmmaker in The Criterion Collection and without a domestic Blu-Ray release it feels like only a matter of time before it’s blessed with a spine number. Alongside Melancholia, Dogville and the Nymphomaniac duology, Dancer in the Dark is one of Von Trier’s more universally appealing works (outside the Criterion catalogue), and its inclusion would be lucrative given the shared credentials of the films headline talents. It will be kind of funny if they advertise “new and approved restoration” since the digital photography is pretty rough.