Les Miserables, or, It's Oh So Björk
Recently someone asked me to explain the theme of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. In spite of my deep admiration for the film, I was at an absolute loss to offer a simple exegesis of its meaning. For me, like the Dogme 95 films it preceded, Breaking the Waves has an almost visceral power, an intuitive sense of human relationships that I have never sought to analyze too deeply for fear of it losing its magic. Such sleight-of-hand is evident in each of these films, not always because of the production process per se, but because the process allows deeply human themes to be explored. Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune is a complex and potent romantic comedy, and von Trier’s own The Idiots offers some of the most dynamic character development in recent memory. The latest Dogmatic creation (although not certified as a Dogme film since von Trier only follows some of the rules), Dancer in the Dark arrives in U.S. (and European) theaters after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes to boos and cheers and opening the New York Film Festival to heatedly divided reviews.
In the film, Björk’s Selma is a Czech immigrant who lives in Washington state, circa 1964. She works in a tool factory, pressing metal sinks by day and doing odd jobs by night in order to save money for an eye operation for her son, Gene (Vladan Kostic), even as she’s going blind from the same affliction that she has passed on to him. An almost saintly woman, she is surrounded by people who look after her Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) at work, and her landlords Bill (David Morse) and Linda (Cara Seymour, so fascinating as a prostitute in American Psycho) at home. We know she is selfless, but she seems nearly selfish when dealing with a would-be suitor, Jeff (Peter Stormare), whom she refuses at every advance.
As Selma goes blind, she can only see her fantasies where everything reflects a Hollywood musical. These become increasingly precious to her, a means of survival even though they get her into trouble. She breaks the machine at work while daydreaming that her coworkers have joined her in a Busby Berkeley-style dance number. In a bit of von Trier’s own fantasy world, the local movie theater only screens classic musicals, which Selma attends with Kathy. No longer able to see the movement onscreen, Kathy narrates by fingering the footsteps on Selma’s hand. This is one of the few precious moments in a film that is fundamentally about suffering. As in Breaking the Waves, von Trier takes his heroine on a journey through hellish and humiliating circumstances. Even more than Emily Watson’s Bess, Björk’s Selma is an innocent, child-like woman with delusions, and these delusions become a matter not of insanity but of survival. As a sign of von Trier’s quirky brilliance, the Sound of Music song “My Favorite Things” bookends the film, first as comedy (in the context of lousy community theater) and then as painfully poignant melodrama, as Selma attempts to preserve her optimism in a miserable situation. In order not to reveal too many details of the (very contrived) plot, I will say only this: Selma is persecuted and punished for her desperation to save her child.
Although less developed and satisfying than Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark is ultimately more devastating. Dancer in the Dark seems the most manipulative and obviously constructed of the recent wave of Danish films. In its employment of actors of specific connotations, Dancer is also the most self-reflexive: this film would be inconceivable without Björk in the central role. Björk may not be a typical celebrity so much as a cult figure around whom this film her first is being marketed and consumed; in conversation, I have consistently heard the film referred to as “the Björk movie.” As the movie’s lore goes, von Trier enlisted Björk to compose the songs for the film’s musical sequences. But Björk became so emotionally attached to the project that she had to play the lead character because she could not let go of it. A star is reborn ... as herself.
Here, Björk doesn’t shed her “musician” persona, but rather complicates her own mythology with this character’s tragic circumstances. Because Björk wrote the songs, they sound like Björk’s other work. So the film reads, for Björk fans (myself included), as if Björk is experiencing Selma’s plight. In a meta-narrative way, the viewer cares about Selma not simply because of the character as written but because the viewer cares about Björk. This blurring of reality and narrative, I believe, is why von Trier agreed to cast her in the role. Björk, a non-actor who claims she will never act in a film again (because von Trier was so cruel to her), feels “real” because she does not seem to be acting. It’s essentially the same principle as the one governing Italian neo-realist films (The Bicycle Thief, etc): non-actors are more convincing than actors, when playing “real” fictional people. Like the little boy in Bicycle Thief, Björk’s face has an openness that is unspecific but tragically emotive nonetheless.
Deneuve’s presence in the film creates a rupture in this world of unreal realism. She’s too elegant to be doing factory work, unless the film is making a comment on class degradation of emigrants; aside from a few awkward references to communism, I do not think that to be the case. Her presence does, however, intertextually evoke her starring roles in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Belle de Jour, a musical and a fantasy film, respectively. Similarly, Joel Grey appears as a former star of Czech musicals, and tap dances his way through a truly surreal cameo. Life is a cabaret indeed for Selma.
But is life a cabaret for von Trier? Not exactly. As one critic sarcastically notes, it appears that he has made a musical without ever having seen one. Visually, Dancer in the Dark maintains the Dogme look hand-held digital video stock with most of the color washed out. The transfer to film is, in terms of clarity, very sharp; the image is smooth, never pixelated. During the musical interludes, however, the look appropriately shifts to one of saturated colors: glowing greens, warm yellows, vibrant reds, and shitty browns. Curiously, however, the image also degrades and becomes more visibly video-derived and grainy. Whether this was an intended effect is unclear, but it creates a distance, emphasizing that the musical sections have no basis in reality. As in Björk’s own video for “It’s Oh So Quiet” (directed by Spike Jonze), the dancing is self-consciously awkward. (Or, as a friend joked, “It looks like the work of a blind choreographer.”) Despite the visual rawness of these sequences, von Trier seems for once to be playful, if not full-blown exuberant. With snappy editing and an inventive array of camera angles (derived from using 100 digital cameras simultaneously), these sequences are structurally specific despite their seeming sloppiness. It’s a curious, jarring dichotomy between the style and content, and essentially an inversion of the way most Dogme films (and, indeed, the rest of this film) function. The Dogme collective wanted to use the technique to find a greater truth; here von Trier uses it to create a greater fiction. (One could argue that this fiction is the greater truth, but that is a debate for another time…)
It seems only a film as schizophrenic as Dancer in the Dark would suit Björk, what with its melancholic moments of quiet and curious explosions of sound. What makes the film distinctive from von Trier’s previous work is not so much the content or the style, but Björk herself. Her musical authorial mark and her performative presence make Dancer in the Dark read as her auteurist project as much, if not more than, von Trier’s.