Dancer in the Dark (2000) dir. Lars von Trier

Even the film’s defenders say the big musical numbers fall flat, and the plot seems more like it belongs to a 1912 melodrama than a 21st Century art film. Its critics are even less kind – The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “perhaps one of the worst things in the history of the world.”

But Dancer in the Dark still won the Palme d’Or at Cannes where it premiered in 2000, and is listed in the ranks of the greatest movies of all time. What happened?

In the 1990’s, von Trier and other Danish filmmakers embarked upon the Dogme 95 movement. Taking an approach similar to modern artists before them, they sought to strip film of elaborate “gimmicks” like special effects and a musical soundtrack in order to focus the audience on the purer values of cinema.

Von Trier really only made one film that came close to adhering to the rules set down by Dogme 95, 1998’s The Idiots. But he brought that lo-fi approach with him when he made Dancer in the Dark. He shot it on handheld DV cameras, and allowed natural light to dominate many of his scenes, in contrast to carefully controlled flood of lights moviegoers are used to. The lack of light in particular adds artificial grain to the digital image, giving it an aesthetic that is more similar both to film and to home video than to Hollywood blockbusters.

This contrast between “real life” lighting and overproduced Hollywood lighting works beautifully in Dancer in the Dark‘s musical numbers. In the film, Björk plays Selma, a Czech immigrant to the United States. She is going blind, and saves pennies from her factory job for an operation to save her son’s eyesight. Her only escape from real life is Hollywood musicals. Her reaction when confronted about her blindness is heartbreaking irony:

Selma loves musicals and joins a local production of The Sound of Music – a conceit which sets up a death row parody of positive thinking at least as biting as Life of Brian‘s:

Von Trier’s simplification works. Dancer is the Dark is unburdened by the unnecessarily complex storylines or overproduced looks of Hollywood. It uses its differences not only to show off von Trier’s cleverness, but also to accentuate its purpose in critiquing Hollywood.

Many non-Hollywood productions – especially in the west – seek to differentiate themselves by taking on a cool, understated tone; i.e. Mike Leigh. But von Trier has never seen much value in understatement. Film’s power comes from its capacity to overwhelm us with emotion. Dancer in the Dark‘s soap opera plot, as Roger Ebert pointed out the review linked to above, “is a brave throwback to the fundamentals of the cinema–to heroines and villains, noble sacrifices and dastardly betrayals.”

No one went to the movies in the 1910’s to see a subtle performance by Lillian Gish, and I doubt many people go to the movies in the 2010’s for similar reasons. Von Trier understands that if we’re going to spend 2 hours doing anything, we want it to leave us ready to laugh, cry, fight or all three – and we want to leave it feeling like it meant something. Learning lessons from the time when the movies were the most successful seems like a brilliant idea.

Adam Call Roberts

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