I recently have gotten into Lars Von Trier’s films, and so far I think Dancer in the Dark is the most confusing to process. Everyone that I have talked to that watched it either loved it or hated it with no one on middle ground. After watching it I am stuck between two thoughts.
First off, Bjork, I thought, was brilliant. She played Selma with a ridiculous amount of humanity and emotion. I enjoyed her performance greatly and would go so far as to say it is one of my favorite performances of all time. I also enjoyed how Von Trier implemented the musical numbers at the right moments. Von Trier is interested in destroying convention and he does it in every scene. I think the lead and the great direction are the best parts and make the film.
However, I am stuck on the writing. Even the most die hard fans admit that the plot is structured pretty shamelessly to make the audience emotional, and sometimes massive shortcuts are taken to get us there. I also found one other common criticism unavoidable- someone once said of this movie that Von Trier makes lovely characters and then puts them through a meat grinder. There’s a devious quality to the script which doesn’t necessarily sit well with me.
I was wondering what everyone else thought- is the film a pile of contrived garbage or a genius middle finger to Hollywood?
Or somewhere in between?
Unfortunately, I don’t remember enough details to contribute in a meaningful way. However, fwiw, I’m in the “in between” camp. I remember liking the way the film tries to be a very different kind of musical, but I didn’t feel like the overall film was completely successful.
I appreciate some of Von Trier’s films, but I gave up on this one half way through. Von Trier explores audience reaction in some of his other work, so you could say those are manipulative too. But in projects like Dogville there at least seemed to be some larger questions at stake in these manipulations. By the time I bailed out of Dancer in the Dark, I figured that the game wasn’t going to be anything more than an exercise in how crass can he be while he yanks your chain. No thanks. Too bad really. I did think the musical numbers were appealing and there were several interesting directions he could have gone with the film.
I know people talk about Von Trier’s penchant for provoking audiences, but I never really got that sense from his films—that is, I thought I never felt the disturbing elements were gratuitous. (I haven’t seen Anti-Christ and a few other films.) I know I didn’t feel this way about Dancer, although you might have a different opinion.
Jazz, I don’t know that I’d describe any of them as gratuitous. I’m willing to grant that he is (sometimes) perfectly in earnest in wanting to explore audience reaction, and we do this with him by watching the film. That’s his subject.
But he wasn’t doing anything in Dancer that gave me reason to put up with it. Of course, I’m willing to entertain an argument for why I should finish the film.
As much as liked Bjork, I’d have to go with bogus on this one. If it wasn’t for her standout performance, this movie would have been impossible to watch. The story was so contrived and the ending so muddled that you could only wonder what von Trier was trying to say. I liked Dogville much better.
I’m willing to grant that he is (sometimes) perfectly in earnest in wanting to explore audience reaction,…
When you say, “explore audience reaction,” that sounds close to gratuitous to me—i.e., doing things to provoke the audience for no other reason except to provoke them. What do you mean by “exploring audience reaction?”
Of course, I’m willing to entertain an argument for why I should finish the film.
Unfortunately, I can’t remember enough of the film to make a case (or even if I’d want to). Dzimas’ comment about the end being “muddled” does resonate with me, though, but I wouldn’t go so far as calling the film “bogus.”
I’m not starting from the assumption that provoking the audience is necessarily bad. Sure, you usually get it in films like Haggis’s Crash which I thoroughly hate. But, on the other hand, you can do something worthwhile. Dogville is certainly manipulative. First Von Trier leads you into one reaction, then he changes the power relations and twists around our sense of victimhood and asks so what do you think now? So he is provoking, sure, but he has reasons for it.
Dogville remained in the realm of parable. You could interpret many things from it, but Dancer in the Dark struck me as an odd indictment against American nativism. He sets up Selma as such an obvious martyr with a number of dubious scenes resulting in the final outcome of this film. I thought he explored this theme much better in Dogville without drawing such obvious conclusions. BTW, I see Selma is now the subject of an opera.
I understand the point about Von Trier provoking the audience, but I’m not sure he likes doing that so much as controlling the audience. One thing I have noticed about his films, especially Antichrist and Dancer, is that he has control of how you think and feel about what’s happening. He draws you in and then uses that to make his story powerful. In most cases I think he more wants watch his movie his way. Dogville was less emotive than any of his other films and Dancer really felt like he was sick of what American Hollywood considered to be dramatic, so he went hard on the melodrama to make a point, not so much provoke his audience into controversy.
I find Von Trier an extremely difficult director to assess. I like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, but consider them both “problem” films due to their emotional manipulativeness. Antichrist I found spellbinding and a much more intelligent exploration of the director’s misogyny, though not without pretension. Element of Crime and Europa are wonderfully expressionistic, but intellectually shallow. I loved how daring The Idiots was, but again it’s problematic. I could also appreciate The Kingdom, although I didn’t think it worked as a whole. Dogville seems to me Von Trier’s one authentic masterpiece, but I think he’s a director that will be better appreciated by posterity.
Dancer is the only von Trier movie I have seen, and the only one I want to see. I left the theater feeling as though I saw a film that was deliberately sadistic and sick. There was no reason, in my mind, to drag out the final hour of the movie. It was the depths of despair and sadness taken to its extreme, and I felt as though the director was punishing the audience. It was truly the only film I have ever seen that I thought diminished my quality of life. I despised it, but that would probably make von Trier cackle with glee.
heh, I tend to consider Dancer in the Dark both brilliant and, um, “bogus”. It is a sick, highly and blatantly manipulative, crass piece of filmmaking that is littered with illogical and inane bits of plotting. But damn it manipulates absolutely perfectly. By the end of it I felt like I had been beaten and left to die in an alleyway. No other film has created in me anything even remotely approaching such a profound and overwhelming sense of despair. On the one hand it’s an emotion that I don’t want to experience, but on the other hand if one of the points of art is to make you experience the full spectrum of emotions – including the undesirable ones – in a safe environment then Dancer in the Dark absolutely succeeds and proves itself as among the best films of the previous decade.
It’s my favorite Von Trier, but I’m not a fan of Von Trier. The only part of it I find majorly contrived is the trial. All that silly “YOU HATE AMERICA” stuff wasn’t necessary to sell the guilty verdict. She did pull the trigger, and her story about him stealing her money and begging her to shoot would sound like a lie to a jury. That and a few other things just didn’t need to be so over the top in order for the story to work.
I really like the musical components of the film.
The musical aspect was great. Bjork really filled those scenes well and they were beautifully choreographed, but it all broke down during the trial.
Yes, the soundtrack is great – I listen to it all the time. The way it’s set to the choreography is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the film.
I completely agree with you on that. In a lot of ways he reminds me of Stanley Kubrick in that a lot of his films were seen as overtly violent and sexual and therefore hard to asses for substance, and I think twenty or thirty years down the road, Von Trier will be thought of more highly, as Kubrick is today.
I also agree with the comments about the music- Bjork did great not only in the acting, but in those too. Given that she is a recording artist to begin with, you could tell she was in her element in those sequences.
So he is provoking, sure, but he has reasons for it.
Right, and because of that, I feel like the word “manipulative” is somewhat inappropriate because it connotes a gratuitousness.
Ahh, then we might just be disputing terms. Von Trier seems to take the audience as his project and the film is his tool to “do things” to the viewer. You might or might not like what he tries to do to you, but I think it is worth thinking about him in this way. With other filmmakers, not so much.
The film was so specifically tailored for Bjork it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. I think von Trier made the movie more for her than the audience, although she too likes to provoke her audiences, so the two have similar aims. Mostly, I think von Triier enjoys making visceral films. He doesn’t want the audience to simply sit back and watch what’s on the screen, he wants them to feel what is happening. Europa almost looks conventional compared to things he has done since then. The problem I have with his films is that I can only see them once. They have kind of a “shock and awe” quality that doesn’t bear up well under repeated viewings.
I agree with your statement that you can only watch his films once. I have problems watching his movies again because they aren’t necessarily enjoyable Friday night entertainment. They’re the sort of thing you have to be in the mood for.
He does seem to beat women mercilessly in his films, physically and emotionally, mostly the sweet, child-like kinds of women. He repeats these stereotypes a lot and then turns them into tragic ones that he seems like a sadist with the way he shows off how girlish and whimsical women are and then abuses them cruelly in a melodramatic fashion, such as robbing them of the power to fight for their lives and stand up oppressive forces.
The women in his films are forced to play the game of the manipulative forces that surround them, such as the way Emily Watson was manipulated by her husband in Breaking the Waves, the way Nicole Kidman is manipulated by the townspeople in Dogville, and finally the way Bjork is manipulated by David Morse in this film. Each time they play the game, they pay for it through the fate abuse and death. At the same time, as uncomfortable as it is, Von Trier may just be trying to make people around the world realize how horrible it is to take advantage of naive meek women for selfish, perverse intentions so that we can learn to care for them more.
In the end though, I feel he does keep exploiting women’s pain and suffering to the point where that’s all he thinks of them and doesn’t give them the ability to think more rationally and take care of themselves. The sacrifices Selma makes for the sake of her son are done out of love, yet at the same time, they are out of childish fear, such as not wanting him to ever know the truth about his illness, which is a patronizing thing to do, especially when it’s going to rob him of his only parent. Von Trier would rather just destroy women’s lives by having them behave naive and self-destructive to the point where it allows the oppressive and manipulative forces to get away with their abusive control over them. Whether it turns the women into martyrs or not, it gives the director the satisfaction to see the women fall apart under the pressure of life and not give them any second chances as though that’s all women are.
To be fair, he also beats sweet, child-like men mercilessly. Remember Europa?
And in Melancholia it’s the women who are stronger.