Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
Mamma Mia on Prozac
I should let you know that I’m not one to cry in movies. That’s not to say that I’m a hard-nosed bastard with no feelings, because of course I well up in many films including the opening of Up and the final third of Requiem for a Dream. However, no film had actually made me release tears until I saw Dancer in the Dark for the second time. Even on my first viewing I did not cry, I just felt very overwhelmed. I suppose once you know the tragic conclusion, it makes it all the more unbearable to watch. Last night I watched Dancer in the Dark for a third time and I cried again.
I didn’t cry quite as much, but tears were still there and it still had that awful emotional wallop to the gut. Dancer in the Dark is one of those rare films which possess such a raw and intense emotional power. It could possibly be the most powerful film I have ever seen. I don’t know anyone who could just zap through the credits, pull the disc out of their DVD player and get on with their lives. Every time I see it, I stare into the credits and I’m haunted by the final shot for hours and hours. In fact, when I went to bed last night, I cried again just thinking about it.
Lars Von Trier is the definition of a love-it or hate-it director. The only film I haven’t liked of his is The Idiots, which is coincidentally part of his Golden Hearts Trilogy which includes this and Breaking the Waves, his other masterpiece. I’ve also loved Dogville and immensely admired his latest Depression Trilogy which features: Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. He’s been accused of creating films to shock for the sake of it, and whilst I do agree with that to some extent (did we really need that brief porn in Antichrist?) you can’t deny that his films are unlike any other. All are beautifully made and written to provoke thought and emotion.
Dancer in the Dark is Lars’ masterpiece. Yes, Breaking the Waves come close, but you just have to give the prize to Dancer for pure innovation. It opens with a sensational overture (written by Bjork) which is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The story behind this overture is that Lars wanted the music to play whilst the curtains were shut over the screen, however he later realised that most movie theaters don’t have curtains anymore and so put images of paintings over the music instead. I think his initial idea was lovely, and would’ve worked perfectly well over a blank screen like the strange opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
We then open to a brilliant piece of comedy where our hero Selma and her friend Cathy are in some rather dull rehearsals for an amateur production of The Sound of Music. This hilarious opening completely juxtaposes the devastating finale. In fact, most viewers forget just how funny the first twenty minutes are, as the ending just completely eclipses that. Lars uses the same Dogme style as he did for The Idiots and Breaking the Waves. It almost feels like a documentary, with the images looking far too natural and the performances feeling far too real. It allows us to truly immerse ourselves into Selma’s world, which of course makes the film all the more hard-hitting.
Talking of performances, Bjork’s is truly sensational. Who would’ve thought that a little Icelandic pop-goddess would be able to give Meryl Streep a run for her money! In fact, Bjork’s performance is more comparable to Emily Watson’s legendary debut in Breaking the Waves. It’s so raw, emotional and intense to watch. Bjork even said that she didn’t feel as if she was acting, she would go onto the set and become Selma. Surely that’s the mark of an incredibly talented actress? It’s a shame that Lars gave her such an awful experience that she never acted again. Bjork didn’t even want to do Dancer in the Dark, she agreed to write the music, but Lars blackmailed her into acting by saying that he wouldn’t use her music unless she played Selma.
Rumour has it that every morning on set Bjork would march up to Lars and say, ‘Mr Von Trier, I despise you,’ and then spit at his face! However, this is so difficult to believe as the character she plays is nothing like that. Selma is a kind-hearted and simple soul whose only goal in life is to earn enough money for her son to have an operation, to prevent him from going blind. It’s Selma’s kind nature which ultimately lands her in some truly heart-wrenching trouble.
Of course, you mustn’t forget that Dancer in the Dark is in fact a musical! Selma is a musical enthusiast because ‘nothing dreadful ever happens.’ Obviously she isn’t a fan of Sweeney Todd, Les Mis or indeed the very musical she is starring in. The songs in the film are all fantastic; I even began liking Scatterheart on my third viewing, understanding that the lack of melody and structure perfectly mirrors the situation which Selma finds herself in. The musical numbers offer a fantastical escape from the dreary reality. The washed-out colours are now bright and vibrant. Extras awkwardly dance around and have unnaturally wide smiles. The musical numbers don’t fit with the tone of the film, and that is exactly the point!
It’s the ending which catapults Dancer in the Dark into masterpiece status though. It has images which will sear into your brain and will touch you in parts which you didn’t know could be touched! I’ve seen many depressing films, but this one takes the prize for the most depressing ending of all time. However, it’s also a genius way to end the film. I especially love the quote which superimposes the screen. It mirrors Selma’s early monologue where she describes cheating films by leaving after the second-to-last song so that the film will play on forever.
It’s easy to see why most people wouldn’t want to watch Dancer in the Dark a second time, let alone a third time like I did! However, I love films which take you on a journey. Films which have the power to physically move you are so rare, and experiencing emotion like this is really quite extraordinary. Dancer in the Dark is a magical masterpiece which must be experienced by everyone at least once. Lars has dabbled in pretty much every genre now: comedy (The Idiots), melodrama (Breaking the Waves), horror (Antichrist), sci-fi (Melancholia) and even porn (Nymphomaniac) however, it’s his contribution to the musical genre which he will be most cherished for.