By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
With global overpopulation neatly intertwining with the advent of the home video camera, we have been afforded, as a species, several near-miracles. For instance, when supersonic jets explode or mobs impolitely loot and riot in an urban center, the common consumer can now document the event and sell it to the networks for our collective edification. Endless streams of babies are now able to grow up secure in the knowledge that their every burp and blemish has been captured in real time, making it possible for them to peruse their personal evolutions. But most significantly, the video camera and the chaos of the modern world have given Lars von Trier the opportunity to make us all seasick while self-indulgently flogging our emotions with a great big ham bone. Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the celebrated Danish director's new abomination, the insanely sloppy but undeniably energetic Dancer in the Dark.
Once one overcomes the powerful urge to ring up Mr. von Trier and introduce him to such wild new concepts as "tripod," "dolly" and "Steadicam" (as well as "script" and "logic," but we'll save these tiny quibbles for later), it becomes marginally possible to settle into his latest effort, a thudding and profoundly nonsensical tearjerker set (rather arbitrarily) in an imaginary America (a country, word has it, that von Trier has never actually visited ... but fair enough -- odds are, George Lucas has never been to Naboo, either).
It's 1962 in a small town in Washington, and a symbol of feminine determination and innocence by the name of Selma (pop singer Björk) has arrived from Czechoslovakia to starve pathetically with her hopeful 10-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Perhaps the lessons in Cockney dialect cost her a pretty penny (the chanteuse herself has commented that her accent is "pretty fucked"), or perhaps finding employment in the only sheet-metal shop in lumber country exhausted her resources, but for whatever reason, Selma and son are forced to squat in a little shack on the property of struggling policeman Bill (David Morse) and his spendthrift wife, Linda (Cara Seymour), who are basically a Ward-and-June unit with the denial showing. Oh yeah, and Selma is going blind.
When she's not risking life and limb banging out stainless-steel sinks (or risking delirium staying up nights carding hairpins), Selma focuses on her life's one true passion -- senseless self-sacrifice. Oops, make that musicals -- that's right, musicals -- because "nothing dreadful ever happens" in them. (This peculiar opinion is shared by von Trier in the press notes. Do they not have access to Sondheim in Europe?) A creature of joy and light and wonder and rainbows trapped in an austere, oppressive environment, Selma lives for musicals, a passion she shares with her equally dialectically challenged friend and co-worker, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). When Selma isn't busily staving off the utterly unmotivated advances of local yokel Jeff (Peter Stormare), she and Kathy attend musicals at the local cinema, where, to the annoyance of other audience members who "paid good money" to get in, Kathy provides a running commentary on the imagery Selma's failing eyes can no longer see. In some of the very few plausible (and genuinely moving) dramatic sequences, Kathy also aids Selma in their rehearsals of an amateur production of The Sound of Music, in which the gibbering, thick-skulled simpleton portrays a very unlikely Maria.
The thrust of the drama -- such that it is -- comes from Selma's unhappy dilemma. She has grown comfortable with her encroaching blindness -- a genetic disorder that has her tapping the railroad tracks with her foot to find her way home and finger-testing a water glass to see whether it's full -- but she cannot accept a similar fate for Gene. "In Czechoslovakia, I saw a film," she explains to her neighbors, "and they were eating candy from a tin just like this, and I was thinking how wonderful it must be in the United States!" When Bill and Linda give her the container of Almond Roca, she uses it to conceal her paltry stash of cash, which she's been socking away to pay for Gene's operation -- a vague situation she steadfastly refuses to explain to anyone, not even her son. Criticized for being a Communist and browbeaten for being a bad mother (despite her affection for her bountiful new homeland, she takes no joy in her son's receiving a shiny new bicycle), Selma's life becomes a sort of monomania, to work her fingers to the bone so that her son might see.
Of course, if this all worked out, we'd have soap-opera melodrama but no movie, so von Trier has spiked the punch with ridiculous and volatile plot points. First, during a solemn tète-à-tète in which Selma and Bill share their secrets (her blind ambition, his bankruptcy), a neighborly trust is obscenely violated. Second, when Selma is forced to confront Bill and regain her savings, the scene erupts into a preposterous rush of violence that could be called silly, hilarious, ghastly, confusing or just plain dumb -- anything but believable. At this point, the intrepid viewer may either leave or discard all hope for accountability and common sense. Those who stay will be pummeled with von Trier's emotional cudgel, plus a bushel and a peck of belting and whimpering from Björk.
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