Sunday, June 23, 2024

Op-ed: Reevaluating Lars von Trier and ‘Dancer in the Dark’ Twenty-One Years Later

In Lars von Trier’s 2000 masterpiece Dancer in the Dark, the female hero Selma Jezkova makes the confident assertion that “In the musicals, nothing bad ever happens,” contradicting what film lovers familiar with the work of the Danish director know: everything that can go wrong will. Beginning with the opera-like overture reminiscent of Bergman’s Swedish adaptation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” punctuated by a series of abstract images, this film promises to be true to form.

Selma, played flawlessly by Icelandic musical artist Bjork, is a kind-hearted Czech immigrant in the mid-1960s who has brought her son to America to have an operation to correct a congenital, degenerative ophthalmological condition he inherited from her. Renting a backyard trailer from a police officer and his wife in Washington State, Selma works long shifts at a factory doing manual labor while daydreaming of having a leading role in a Hollywood musical. With the help of her friend Kathy (played by Catherine Deneuve), a French immigrant who, like Selma, takes a Marxist view of community and friendship, Selma navigates her job and evenings spent rehearsing “The Sound of Music” for a community theater production while rapidly—and secretly—losing her eyesight. Bill (played by David Morse), the cop from whom Selma rents her home, initially seems interested in Selma and her son Gene, taking Gene under his paternal wing. As the story approaches its climax, however, it becomes clear that Bill’s intentions are not as altruistic as they appear: his capitalist greed leads to an operatic finale more “Tosca” than “The Magic Flute.”

The tension between the tragic storyline and the whimsically choreographed, quintessentially Bjork musical numbers takes a film that would be hard to watch and renders it unbearable. Instead of allowing viewers to settle into a parable of American avarice in its meanest and most destructive form (as he does with his next film, Dogville [2003]), von Trier uses the music he co-wrote with Bjork to distract and entertain them, disarming their defenses, before delivering the next cinematic gut punch, making “Dancer in the Dark” the ultimate anti-musical musical.

Naively celebrating Dancer in the Dark as a moralizing work of art that brilliantly plays with genre in order to expose the ugliest aspects of American culture is no longer an option. Gone are the days when art lovers were allowed to separate the artist from their art. Who relaxes anymore into listening to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” immune to its political history as a musical accompaniment to the march to the gas chambers? After the 2011 Cannes Film Festival interview that got Lars von Trier permanently banned, it will strike many as inappropriate to elevate any of his work for its moral teachings. When asked by a journalist about the inspiration he took from German Romanticism while making his film Melancholia (2011), von Trier joked about being a Nazi. Whether or not Lars von Trier is actually an antisemite is impossible to say, but his comments at Cannes ten years ago undermine his credibility as a moralist.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when artists we’ve revered turn out to be deeply flawed, even detestable human beings. Centuries-old, the notion of the “maverick” artist seems to have permeated the world of cinema, giving permission to directors like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and maybe even Lars von Trier to embrace their worst impulses. “Dancer in the Dark” is a film that masterfully explores the dangers of human impulse. In a time when the world is staring down the realities of such human-made crises as social injustice and climate change, Dancer in the Dark could serve as a cautionary tale. Sadly, the director’s own impulses have made that impossible.

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