(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Recording star Björk is “miraculous” as Selma, a factory working in rural America and single mother who is losing her eyesight from a hereditary disease. Determined to protect her 12-year-old son from the same fate, Selma is saving her money to get him an operation. In the evenings, Selma escapes into a world where “nothing dreadful ever happens,” rehearsing for a production of The Sound Of Music with her best friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). But when a neighbor (David Morse) betrays her trust, Selma’s life spirals out of control. The lines between reality and fantasy blur, and Selma begins to believe that her life has actually become a Hollywood musical- as she inexorably heads toward the film’s unforgettable finale.
– From DVD Production Notes
I didn’t cry until the third time I saw Dancer In The Dark. I’m not sure why, although it made me feel a lot of things. It’s a beautiful, diamond-cut sucker punch of a film that people rarely watch more than once. Over the years I’ve encountered admirers- mostly men- who confess they “don’t cry at movies,” but this was the only exception.
It’s easy to understand why. Dancer In The Dark is one of the most infuriating, sad and emotional films to kick off 21st century cinema. It’s a heartbreaking rendering of a character’s inner life as everything falls apart. It’s also the film that solidified Lars von Trier’s penchant for injustice and suffering. Two of my friends couldn’t finish watching it, (correctly) sensing Selma’s free fall into agony.
Upon revisiting the film I realize there is more than what made it notorious. When you strip the emotion and audience reaction away, Dancer is a love story. It’s not only a testimony of stubborn maternal love but love in many forms, all of them running through Selma. Selma and Kathy. Jeff and Selma. Selma and Samuel. Brenda and Selma. Even Selma and Bill have a tenderness between them, which Bill exploits while Selma remains true to her word.
But above all there is Selma’s love for her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic), which she holds so tightly and close to herself until the end. We never see it reciprocated, but in the final scene it undoubtedly connects them.
This isn’t the kind of thing von Trier is known for. The positive aspects or moments of levity in his work are often overlooked. Dancer is no exception. It has been written off as “torture porn,” a “horror film,” and most specifically “one of the worst films, one of the worst artworks and perhaps one of the worst things in the history of the world.” Are these descriptions true? To some- yes- but in the end they are subjective, a part of the film’s divisiveness.
This makes it all the more interesting to revisit years later, long after the dust has settled. In spite of its bleakness the film continuously pulses with love and joy- the best Selma can draw from within herself. This is what makes the story universal. The extreme highs of imagination exist in all of us- how we perceive ourselves and cope with our day-to-day existence. Dancer captures this self-affirmation and soothing in a transcendent way. Selma is a lover of cinema and musicals, and with so little to keep her happy she vanishes into her own, taking us with her.
In this case mentally escaping becomes Selma’s downfall then her last bastion of strength- not only as a coping mechanism but a survival tactic. The more despair closes in on her the more it becomes a reflex, and to a certain extent it’s the only happiness she has.
Her circumstances become increasingly dire. She loses her job. She is arrested for a murder she was forced to commit. She is a foreigner and suspected communist. She is of limited intelligence and child-like in her convictions. She is also obstinate in her purpose. Her son comes first, and she is driven to a point where she can’t break her self-made promise to him.
For most viewers each development is a shock. Why doesn’t Selma fight harder? Why won’t she allow Gene to see her in prison? Why won’t she give a full explanation of why she murdered Bill? When Kathy uses Selma’s savings to bring in a new lawyer, she angrily exclaims there’s no point in “spending that kind of money on a blind woman who’s going to spend the rest of her life in jail.” Aside from that her reasons are never fully explained, but through knowing Selma their absence become less of a mystery and more of an affirmation. She accepts it’s over before the audience does. It doesn’t matter what she does or says.
This keeps with a theme von Trier has been building on for years. Dancer was the final film in his “Gold Heart” trilogy, an examination of “good” trying to thrive in an unjust and hypocritical world. While many viewers and critics argue Dancer is misogynistic, I think that’s too simplistic. Selma is a character who has more resilience and conviction than most of us could muster in her situation. She loses everything and knows she will die, but that doesn’t matter to her as much as saving her son. Once she realizes she has her suffering is over, and the send-off von Trier gives her character is simply unforgettable.
Personally I find it difficult to put my feelings and opinions about Dancer into words (in short: writing this has been no easy task). Like other von Trier works, I find the experience beyond language. I still remember the feeling I had as the camera began to rise in the film’s final shot, going through the roof like one of Selma’s favorite musicals. I was dumbfounded with how fitting it was, then overtaken by triumphant music that followed: Selma in the afterlife.
Well played, von Trier. Well played.