After writing about Breaking The Waves last evening, it got me thinking more and more about the two subsequent films I mentioned: 2004's Dogville and 2000's Dancer In The Dark. And while I've wanted to bounce around more between genres and time frames than I have, I figured it probably does me a lot more good to write about the films I'm thinking about, so I figured I'd just go for this one, instead of writing about an older film I've not seen in ages for the sake of diversity.
So, as I said earlier, Lars Von trier's films tend to be divisive, and I'd wager that this is probably the most divisive of the bunch. Like Breaking The Waves, this is a bleak film about a naive heroine's struggle against the establishment. But there's more... it's part musical that stars Björk, who most people tend to either go ape shit for or go running for the hills from with their ears covered.
As for those elements, I was intrigued. I love Von Trier. My feelings toward Björk are mixed: I truly respect her for being someone who just genuinely seems to march to her own beat, as opposed to so many people for whom it's just a gimmick. I like a lot of her music, but it's just not music I can listen to all the time.
As for musicals, that was going to be the big stumbling block for me. Let it be known that I really don't like musicals. At. All. Yet Von Trier's inventive approach made me not mind the musical portions at all.
Björk plays Selma Jezkova, a Czech immigrant to America in the early 1960's when musicals held a more widespread appeal than they do these days. And while she spends her evenings in the cinema taking in the latest Hollywood musicals, she spends her days toiling away in a factory, in hopes of saving up her money to spare her son Gene the same fate that has befallen her.
Selma has a degenerative vision disorder that has left her nearly blind, and she puts away almost all of earnings to get Gene an operation to save his eyesight.
Through her work at the factory, she begins to hear the frequent continuous sounds as musical beats and finds herself daydreaming about appearing in a Hollywood musical herself, and in these musical interludes, it really does transform into a different film in a different world. The grainy aesthetic and somber mood gives way to bright colors and joyful songs. While it maintains the feel of the older Hollywood musicals where everyone bursts into song and choreographed dancing, Dancer In The Dark manages to pull it off using the same visual flair without that trademark corniness that sinks so many of those films, for me at least.
The film takes a turn, however, when circumstances lead Selma to be found standing over a dead friend with the gun in her hand, and through her own childlike innocence and failure to comprehend what is really happening to her, she heads out of court as a woman condemned to death row.
The film is widely viewed as a commentary against the death penalty, and specifically, The United States use of capital punishment. Whatever your feelings are on that issue, I think Von Trier does a great job in presenting his case. Björk does an astonishing job in the film, deservedly winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and the film won the Palme D'Or, or the equivalent of Best Picture.
As for the music in the film, even if you aren't particularly fond of Björk, the songs work so damn well within the context of the scene, and her shaky, on-the-verge-of-tears rendition of a beloved song from most of our childhoods wonderfully juxtaposes a sense of heartbreak to a song I previously considered so cheerful. Now, I can't ever quite hear the song in the same light again. And the movie is one not soon forgotten.