Perhaps I should begin this review by pointing out that Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark won the top prize at Cannes this year, not to mention a Best Actress award for Icelandic pop chanteuse Björk, who claims she'll never act in a movie again. My reaction to the film's success is something between "to each his own" and "there's no accounting for some people's (especially some French people's) taste." My reaction to Björk's early retirement? Don't let the door hit your butt on the way out. Variously described as elfin, spritelike and leprechaun-ish by admiring critics, Björk flits through the movie, piling on the pixie dust. But she isn't really an actress, let alone the best one around, and that thing she does in Dancer in the Dark is less a performance than an appearance. Which is to say, she appears to be acting, but what she's really doing is emoting for the camera. The performance hasn't been thought out, either by her or by her director. To adopt the film's own metaphor, she's dancing in the dark. That might have worked if von Trier had given the film a firmer grounding, but he's dancing in the dark too, trying out moves that may or may not deserve to see the light of day. Of course, that might have worked if, say, half the moves paid off. Few directors can do much better than that. (Robert Altman comes to mind.) But von Trier is either unable or unwilling (perhaps both) to make Dancer in the Dark pay off. He's certainly put a lot of obstacles in his path: the casting of Björk, the use of mostly foreign actors to play mostly American characters, trying to re-create the Pacific Northwest circa 1963 on a Swedish soundstage, shooting on video in such a way that the cameraman appears to be suffering from Parkinson's, and cooking up a plot so crazily melodramatic it makes D.W. Griffith look like Ingmar Bergman. Oh, and I almost forgot: turning the whole sorry mess into a musical. Von Trier himself has called it "a schizophrenic film from a schizophrenic director." Perhaps someone needs to check his meds. Peering at the world through rose-colored spectacles, Björk is Selma, a Czech immigrant who's going blind. It's too late for her, but not for her son, who has the same disease. If he gets an eye operation before he turns 13, his sight will be saved. And so Selma, who works in a dreary factory, must work even harder, stacking up those pennies from heaven. Alas, the world, in more ways than one, is closing in on her. Her landlord either borrows or steals her stash of cash, and when she tries to get it back, a scuffle ensues, landing her not just in prison, but on Death Row. This all might be a bit much, even for the saintly Selma, if it weren't for her ability to take the sounds around her--e.g., the clangs and clongs at the factory--and mix them into...the sound of music (specifically, the sounds of Björk's new CD, Selmasongs). At its best, Dancer in the Dark is Meet Me in St. Louis as directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Actually, at its best it's a musical version of Dead Man Walking; call it Dead Woman Singing and Dancing. As Selma makes her way to the gallows, whistling what Björk and von Trier must consider a happy tune, the movie suddenly works, but that's because it's suddenly grounded in something we care about: a noose around our heroine's neck. I happen to love "sad" musicals like New York, New York (a great movie that's never gotten its due), The Singing Detective and the collected works of Stephen Sondheim. And von Trier tries to carve his own little niche in that tradition by creating what may be the first verismo musical--a Verdian opera for the age of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking and catch-as-catch-can sound sampling. Alas, the movie seems lifelike, but there are too many forces working against the suspension of our disbelief. For example, the still-lovely Catherine Deneuve, in a willfully perverse piece of anti-typecasting, plays a factory worker in a drab coat and a drab scarf. Sacré bleu!