Once one overcomes the powerful urge to ring up Mr. von Trier and introduce him to such wild new concepts as "tripod," "dolly" and "Steadicam" (as well as "script" and "logic," but we'll save these tiny quibbles for later), it becomes marginally possible to settle into his latest effort, a thudding and profoundly nonsensical tearjerker set (rather arbitrarily) in an imaginary America (a country, word has it, that von Trier has never actually visited ... but fair enough -- odds are, George Lucas has never been to Naboo, either).
It's 1962 in a small town in Washington, and a symbol of feminine determination and innocence by the name of Selma (pop singer Björk) has arrived from Czechoslovakia to starve pathetically with her hopeful 10-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Perhaps the lessons in Cockney dialect cost her a pretty penny (the chanteuse herself has commented that her accent is "pretty fucked"), or perhaps finding employment in the only sheet-metal shop in lumber country exhausted her resources, but for whatever reason, Selma and son are forced to squat in a little shack on the property of struggling policeman Bill (David Morse) and his spendthrift wife, Linda (Cara Seymour), who are basically a Ward-and-June unit with the denial showing. Oh yeah, and Selma is going blind.
When she's not risking life and limb banging out stainless-steel sinks (or risking delirium staying up nights carding hairpins), Selma focuses on her life's one true passion -- senseless self-sacrifice. Oops, make that musicals -- that's right, musicals -- because "nothing dreadful ever happens" in them. (This peculiar opinion is shared by von Trier in the press notes. Do they not have access to Sondheim in Europe?) A creature of joy and light and wonder and rainbows trapped in an austere, oppressive environment, Selma lives for musicals, a passion she shares with her equally dialectically challenged friend and co-worker, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). When Selma isn't busily staving off the utterly unmotivated advances of local yokel Jeff (Peter Stormare), she and Kathy attend musicals at the local cinema, where, to the annoyance of other audience members who "paid good money" to get in, Kathy provides a running commentary on the imagery Selma's failing eyes can no longer see. In some of the very few plausible (and genuinely moving) dramatic sequences, Kathy also aids Selma in their rehearsals of an amateur production of The Sound of Music, in which the gibbering, thick-skulled simpleton portrays a very unlikely Maria.
The thrust of the drama -- such that it is -- comes from Selma's unhappy dilemma. She has grown comfortable with her encroaching blindness -- a genetic disorder that has her tapping the railroad tracks with her foot to find her way home and finger-testing a water glass to see whether it's full -- but she cannot accept a similar fate for Gene. "In Czechoslovakia, I saw a film," she explains to her neighbors, "and they were eating candy from a tin just like this, and I was thinking how wonderful it must be in the United States!" When Bill and Linda give her the container of Almond Roca, she uses it to conceal her paltry stash of cash, which she's been socking away to pay for Gene's operation -- a vague situation she steadfastly refuses to explain to anyone, not even her son. Criticized for being a Communist and browbeaten for being a bad mother (despite her affection for her bountiful new homeland, she takes no joy in her son's receiving a shiny new bicycle), Selma's life becomes a sort of monomania, to work her fingers to the bone so that her son might see.
Of course, if this all worked out, we'd have soap-opera melodrama but no movie, so von Trier has spiked the punch with ridiculous and volatile plot points. First, during a solemn tète-à-tète in which Selma and Bill share their secrets (her blind ambition, his bankruptcy), a neighborly trust is obscenely violated. Second, when Selma is forced to confront Bill and regain her savings, the scene erupts into a preposterous rush of violence that could be called silly, hilarious, ghastly, confusing or just plain dumb -- anything but believable. At this point, the intrepid viewer may either leave or discard all hope for accountability and common sense. Those who stay will be pummeled with von Trier's emotional cudgel, plus a bushel and a peck of belting and whimpering from Björk.
To her credit, Björk definitely holds the movie together, and though she's about as much of an actress as Bruce Willis is a pop star, her natural charisma and the overwhelming intensity of her emotions should blind a lot of viewers to the ludicrousness of the story and the intentionally rotten videography by veteran DP Robby Müller (known for his work with Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox and Wim Wenders). Truly, it is a crying shame that the musical segments of Dancer in the Dark were not preserved in Cinemascope and Technicolor, because they're not only the best parts of the movie (brilliantly choreographed by Vincent Paterson, who has helped Madonna and Michael Jackson get a groove on), they are, in both senses, moving pieces of art. Björk is in complete control when she's singing and dancing, and it's gratifying to watch her, exultant, greeting the authorities with "They're here for me!" or sharing quick squeezes of lovin' with the inmates along her 107 steps to doom. Likewise, the sequences aboard the freight train and in the courtroom (the latter featuring a delightful appearance by Joel Grey) are simply glorious. But when it transpires that no one in her life is able to scrape together 2,000 bucks to save her life, the movie just feels like an exercise in irony-free sadism, an endurance test for oversaturated psyches.
Established as a global superstar of cinema, von Trier is a master of provocation, but he's often a weakling in terms of substance, throwing ugly tantrums rather than romancing us with ingenious miseries. The whole Dogme 95 manifesto (co-scripted with Thomas Vinterberg, who has, with The Celebration, put it to better use) is already starting to seem like a hackneyed distraction ("We do solemnly swear to make technically inept movies") rather than the divining rod of "purity" it should have been. If von Trier were to put down the multiple Panasonics and pick up a Panavision, we might get a chance to experience more of his vision, behind the blurry muck and distortion. As Björk said in a press conference, "Most of the world is driven by the eye; they design cities to look great, but they sound terrible." In like fashion, von Trier designs his works to scratch our souls (and, sometimes, as in Breaking the Waves or The Kingdom and its sequel, they leave lasting scars), but without a crackling ghost story or a powerful actor like Emily Watson, his work starts to feel bloated, self-important and boring.
There are other arguments available, of course -- that von Trier has sculpted Dancer in the Dark as a modern fable, that it weighs in on the plight of the eternal feminine in the crushing postindustrial age -- but such theorizing seems far too lofty for the cheap, grungy tragedy von Trier has spewed forth this time. Apart from those wonderful musical segments, Dancer in the Dark is just a big bag of gas, redundant and flatulent, and might fare as well under the title Breaking the Wind.