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Music Movie Mondays: Dancer in the Dark

August 30, 2010

I’ve been generating unfounded criticism over Lars von Trier’s filmography for some time now. I have a habit of forming opinions before actually engaging with someone’s work. I also tend to bolster my prejudgments with related essays and reviews. If I’m suspicious of it, I tend to be proven right. Even if I champion something, rarely do I do so without reservations. This assuredly speaks to fallibility toward personal biases, but I do make the effort to encounter anything with which I have initial reservations. Having seen 1998’s The Idiots and 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, I haven’t strayed from my initial position, but I do think I have the language to explain why and provide nuance to my argument.

In fact, I formed this opinion roughly around the time Dancer in the Dark was released. I recalled Emily Watson’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for 1996’s Breaking the Waves, the first installment of von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy, of which Dancer in the Dark concludes and potentially transitions into the director’s America trilogy with 2003’s Dogville. But I wasn’t particularly interested until I read that my pop idol Björk won Best Actress at Cannes for her turn as protagonist Selma, along with the turbulent professional relationship she had with von Trier.

Though I’ve not read co-star Catherine Deneuve’s Close Up and Personal, the actress reports that both of them were quite demanding. Despite sexist perceptions of Björk’s persona as ethereal and child-like, there is conclusive evidence that she is a decisive individual with strong beliefs about her work. The same could be said of von Trier. However, Björk tends to invite collaboration. This is evident in her work with producer Mark Bell, partner Matthew Barney, and perhaps most notable in her work with music video director Michel Gondry, the subject of which was a chapter in my master’s thesis on the Directors Label series. By contrast, von Trier’s vision seems austerely singular — “auteur” with a capital “A” and a decisive period following the word.

Likewise, von Trier’s work is often debated as either subtly feminist or deeply misogynistic. The director’s latest feature, Antichrist, once again prompted this debate and convinced Slate‘s Dana Stevens that she didn’t need to see another movie to know that the lady-hating is on the surface. My friend Caitlin, who runs Dark Room, herself interested in von Trier’s work, claimed she couldn’t forge a feminist or progressive reading without doing “interpretive acrobatics.” As I haven’t yet seen Antichrist (and will have to ramp myself up to do so), I can’t comment. However, one of my friends who is a fan made an interesting comment about the movie. He proposed that the movie could be interpreted as a feminist statement because the wife, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is rebelling against the experimental therapy procedures her husband, He (Willem Dafoe) is inflicting upon her following the death of their son. In short, my friend interpreted her actions as a way to obfuscate her therapist husband from getting inside her head.

Fair point, but I have to wonder why von Trier habitually pushes his female characters (and, in Björk’s case, the actress) over the brink. I certainly understand that patriarchy does this to women and girls, but don’t understand how he isn’t the architect of patriarchy in his own work. The only way I could finagle von Trier as a champion of feminism would be to dispense with his clear appeals toward paternalism and interceding on behalf of women, which has nothing to do with feminism. While I appreciate that he foregrounds female characters in his movies and moves them toward wonderful performances, I don’t like how consistently they must suffer by his (authorial) hand. And really, is there anything new we can discover about a woman in peril?

The Idiots needled with making a commentary on misogyny. I can’t get behind the idea of a group of bored middle-class adults feigning disability to flee the shackles of the bourgeoisie, even if the limitations of such a situation are built into the story. I also find no traction behind the obvious metaphor of the characters’ actions extending into a critique on how difficult it is to make a movie under the limitations outlined in the Dogma 95 manifesto, which von Trier co-wrote. But the ending drop-kicked me, all the more because I forgot that the actual protagonist wasn’t messianic figure Stoffer (Jens Albinus), but Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a mild and irrevocably damaged woman whose reasons for joining the group are devastating.

I was not left with this feeling in Dancer in the Dark, which focuses on Selma Ježková, a Czech immigrant and factory worker raising her young son Gene (Vladica Kostic) in Washington state in 1964. She is going blind and is scraping from her meager salary to pay for the eye operation Gene will inevitably need. Björk gives a good performance and in great company with Deneuve as her friend and co-worker Kathy. The musical segments are mesmerizing and made all the more poignant when juxtaposed with the character’s grim realities. I thought the score Björk put together with Mark Bell was perhaps the movie’s best asset, as they found surprising ways to incorporate found objects germane to the setting into the music.

. . . But that’s about it. Though I found the first hour promising, the second half proved terribly contrived. As these events lead to Selma’s ultimate execution, which is configured as a maternal sacrifice, I can’t really abide by the storyline. Basically, Selma is framed for theft and manslaughter in her efforts to procure her money from despondent landlord Bill (David Morse), who requests that she kill him to rid him of daunting fiscal responsibilities to his family. She complies, which I believe to be completely out of character. She receives a swift trial, whereupon she is painted as a treacherous communist and given the death penalty, which I find woefully plausible. She refuses further legal counsel to preserve the fund she provided for Gene’s operation. She sings an unaccompanied version of “107 Steps” at her hanging, which is interrupted by the noose’s pull. A curtain draws on her performance and brings the movie to a close.

It’s meant to be a triumphant moment, but I strain to understand what the triumph might be. Best I can imagine is that Selma’s good heart sets right all the wrongs inflicted upon her. But with von Trier ultimately turning the screws, it hardly seems a victory.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 9:30 pm

    Well, I will look at this film when I do the Lynchpin Performance for Björk for it. Clearly no other actress could have played the part, and despite the flaws, it is a very moving performance. There’s a lot more to say about it, but I’ll do that when I get around to that essay, which I’ll delay a couple of essays just to give some distance!

  2. August 31, 2010 9:23 am

    I have seen a lot of Lars von Trier films — Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, AntiChrist — though my favorite is the documentary he did The Five Obstructions, it is a great movie about filmmaking and the creative process and mentors and influences that I frequently recommend to people. The other movies, I feel like with a Lars von Trier flick I have to ask with a whisper if someone has seen it, I can never bear to recommend it to anyone, they are gruesome to watch, but I’m always dying to talk about it with someone else who shared my curiosity and stamina.

    This is the thesis I go back and forth on: Lars von Trier makes movies to show us the reflection of how horribly the world treats women. I don’t think he is personally misogynistic — his work is, intentionally so, with an artistic purpose, but nonetheless it is, and the question is always, at what cost? Is this doing what he intends? Why is a man telling that story? Then again, it’s actually a perfect example of how men often attempt to be ‘lovers of women’ and end up enacting paternalistic and condescending and manipulative narratives….just like in Antichrist? So then I think, damn, is he that many steps ahead? Given the breadth of his catalog, he has been examining this for awhile. I generally say his work is not feminist, just female-centric. (It is also different from Quentin Tarantino’s femalecentricism, who likes strong ass-kicking women (with nice feet) because they give him a hard-on.)

    One of his early films which I haven’t seen yet but want to, is a Danish television movie retelling of Medea, which seriously, that makes a whole lot of sense in the analysis of his creative psyche.

  3. Alyx Vesey permalink
    August 31, 2010 9:44 am

    Ooh, excited to read your take on Björk’s performance!

  4. evmaroon permalink
    August 31, 2010 12:04 pm

    I’ve come away from Dancer in the Dark and Dogville with two entirely different senses of women in struggle in a film, actually. I could barely, and I mean just by the last thread of me barely, hold on to keep watching DinD. It was grueling. It was like peeling away my fingernails for 140 minutes. If there was a message in there about living on the margins, about male exploitation of vulnerable women, about the myopia of the criminal justice system juxtaposed with her blindness, then fine, great, I’m glad those messages were there. But OMG I wanted to hang von Trier myself at the end of that movie, especially because it almost ruined David Morse for me as an actor, and that is a crime punishable by death.
    Dogville, just a few years later, was an amazing, amazing film to me. It had me at the minimal set design. It compelled me with Lauren Bacall and Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany. I personally hate seeing rape depicted on film, but I sat on my hands and waited, because I wanted there to be something after that that I could find redeeming. Its draw as a narrative was just as unpleasant after the first third, just like DitD, but by the end of that movie, I reveled in Kidman’s vindication. I came out of that movie telling people it had the best payoff of any movie I’d seen in the last 10 years. And I know we’re talking about other men–mob men, no less—-who carried out the vengeance, but I don’t think they’d have done it without the say so of Grace Margaret Mulligan (Kidman). Just that one difference at the end (hanging vs. burning down an entire town of banal evil people) made these two very different experiences. Oh, and I actually really dislike Bjork’s music. Sorry.

  5. Robyn permalink
    September 2, 2010 8:11 am

    At the complete risk of making a fool of myself because I have not seen the movie and am only basing this comment on your review, I think it’s possible that you’re not seeing the triumph at the end because you’re not look at this from the perspective of “mother.” In your summary, at least, it sounds as if her singular objective is to come up with the money to get her son the surgery he needs to avoid ending up in her same position. That’s a strong motivator and one that has brought women to the brink since the dawn of time. Even though she loses herself (literally), she achieves her goal for her son.

    That’s her triumph.

  6. September 6, 2010 12:19 pm

    Dancer in The Dark is one of my favorite movies of all time. Though, I must agree, I tend to shut it off after the first hour these days as it is too painful to watch my favorite singer of all time, Björk, in such agony. Signs of a brilliant performance artist, no?

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  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine in Butter: Dancer in the Dark « Feminist Music Geek

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