Road to Nowhere: How ‘Dancer In The Dark’ Spelled The End For Lars Von Trier

Twenty years ago, Lars von Trier made a turning point in his career with the Bjork-led Dancer in the Dark. But this is when the ego began to eclipse the art, finds Steve Erickson

Unless you were a fastidious cinephile in the ‘90s and early 2000s, the excitement around Lars von Trier’s work might seem baffling. His attempts at shock value started out genuinely provocative: his 1996 breakthrough Breaking the Waves raises troubling but urgent questions about the value of sacrifice, the meaning of extending religious valorisation into sexual degradation, and the gendered nature of the film’s treatment of these themes. It did so with acting, direction and editing that still seems remarkably fresh, telling an outlandish tale of martyrdom in a rough-hewn style of widescreen handheld camera and irregular jump cuts. Emily Watson gives an utterly convincing impression of a woman whose private moments are being caught on the fly. But many feminists were angered by the story in which Bess, the waif played by Watson, performs a miracle by giving up her life for her husband.

Von Trier was taken seriously during this time not just as a filmmaker but as a thinker with a new vision of cinema thanks to the Dogme 95 manifesto. Written with fellow filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg in 45 minutes, it called for a rejection of special effects, “superficial action” such as murder, artificial sets, and genre films, among other things. The Idiots is von Trier’s only official Dogme film, and one can see how much the rest of his work departs from the manifesto. The worldwide success of Vinterberg’s The Celebration, with its combination of handheld camera, gritty video and quick editing with classical dramatics got audiences, critics and other directors to treat Dogme as a movement with a clear aesthetic, not just a publicity stunt. While a string of films sporting Dogme certifications followed (none of them as good as The Idiots or The Celebration), an aesthetic based around low budgets and video technology became popular, even in films that broke most of the manifesto’s rules. Now that almost all movies are shot on video, there’s nothing special about embracing the technology. But 20 years ago, it seemed empowering and even promised to break the stranglehold of big-budget Hollywood productions.

Just five years after writing that manifesto, von Trier started curdling into a director whose desire to cause a media fracas at Cannes took precedence over his films’ substance. His decline began with his musical Dancer in the Dark, which turns 20 this year. Its songs are presented as its Czech exile heroine Selma’s (Bjork) fantasies of how her dreary life in 1960s America could be better. The first one, “Cvalda”, begins with the rhythm of a factory, turned into a clanking and grinding drum track. The second, “I’ve Seen It All”, also uses the rhythm of a passing train as a key musical element. Selma ignores the dangers of factory work to fantasise that she’s living in a Hollywood musical, spending her spare time rehearsing for a community theatre production of The Sound of Music, but at the end of “Cvalda”, she injures herself after zoning out on the job. She is carried out by real-life cops while singing “This is a musical, there’s always someone to catch me when you fall.” This is a musical, but no one is around to help her.

As we’ve come to learn is typical for von Trier, the filmmaker doubled down in response to the criticism he received, questioning his depiction of women and even his sincerity. The Idiots, which came immediately before, placed the notion of the sacrificial woman in the context of a dark comedy of a commune who attempts to shock the complacent middle class by pretending to be mentally challenged. Dancer in the Dark was completely devoid of Breaking the Waves’ longing for spiritual transcendence. Summing up this period of von Trier’s work, critic Agata Pyzik wrote in The New Humanist, “Von Trier positions women as holy masochists and absurd altruists, desperately submissive to the extent that they almost beg to be beaten or mistreated, devoted to the abstract idea of ‘helping others’, even if that comes at the price of their pain, humiliation or even death.” It was one thing to make one film whose idea of female benevolence was based on this commitment to one’s own destruction; but by the time von Trier had made three, it seemed like a gimmick at best, a sexist fetish at worst.

In Dancer in the Dark, Selma is rapidly losing her vision due to a genetic condition running in her family. While there’s no hope for her to save it, she is single-mindedly devoted to sparing her young son from the same fate. He needs an expensive operation by age 13. But the boy exists as merely a plot device, not a real person with a life of his own. So does Selma’s love for him. It’s the set-up for this story, not a convincing emotion. Her love of Hollywood musicals is set up with more passion.

Unlike prior and subsequent von Trier heroines, Selma is never sexually degraded. However, Bjork came forward in 2017 saying that the director sexually harassed her on set, following accusations of him merely being a jerk immediately after the film was completed. Although she’s a mother, Selma is portrayed as childlike and near-virginal. She brushes off interest from her pesky co-worker Jeff. Fair enough, but she never expresses a single desire unrelated to her role as a mother or her interest in musicals. Bjork’s wide-eyed performance enhances this quality. Von Trier frames her in close-ups that make her look younger than she actually is. Pyzik even suggests that “[von Trier’s heroines] kindness’ results from a sort of mental disability.” While Breaking the Waves and The Idiots never fully state this, the director has long been fascinated by the subject; his 1994 TV series The Kingdom featured interludes with characters with Down’s syndrome. Dancer in the Dark doesn’t present Selma as mentally challenged, but it condescends to her naivete regarding American society’s brutal class system and lust for revenge. It suggests watching too many movies has damaged her brain.

Dancer in the Dark was the first film von Trier set in the U.S. While he has never left Europe due to a phobia of flying, the director would go on to make five more films taking place in America. Dogville and Manderlay critique slavery and the political corruption hiding behind myths about the country’s founding, with both films closing with photographic montages of impoverished, un-photogenic Americans set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans". Dancer in the Dark’s themes about American poverty and the immorality of the death penalty play as an excuse to set up a narrative that heaps as much misery upon Selma as possible. The film’s two murder scenes are excruciating. In the first, her landlord Bill (David Morse), who has stolen Selma’s savings, begs her to kill him, because the pain of being alive and facing poverty has become unbearable. She shoots, but only wounds him, finally ending his life by beating him over the head repeatedly. When Selma is executed, she needs a guard’s (Siohban Fallon) help to be dragged to the hangman’s chamber, singing a list of the number of steps along the way.

Taken out of context, one could say these scenes take a moral stance against Hollywood’s usual clean depiction of violence, where movies in which a hundred people are killed are considered suitable for children, just as long as no blood is visible when people get shot. (Take this study which shows that the MPAA’s PG-13 rating as lenient towards gun violence depicted with no consequences.) But Dancer in the Dark stretches out its characters’ pain, mostly to better manipulate its audience’s tear ducts. The fact that we see Bill screaming in agony for minutes means that his resurrection to perform a song with Selma immediately afterwards reads as an evasive lie. It’s impossible to take Dancer in the Dark seriously as a critique of the death penalty, when it offers up cartoonish caricatures of the depths that anti-communism can sink to. In fact, its view of American life is so one-dimensional that it feels like it could’ve been made in the USSR at the time in which it was set.

“I’ve Seen It All” (performed as a duet between Bjork and Stormare in the film, with Thom Yorke replacing him on her Selmasongs album) is a lovely song. Its musical performance is the one moment of innocent, even ecstatic, pleasure in Dancer in the Dark. Back in 2000, von Trier made much out of the fact that its musical numbers were shot with 100 video cameras, which enabled him to select a wide array of camera angles and edit them together. Brightly saturated colours and artful cutting contrast with the drab shakycam in the rest of the film. The song allows the one moment where Selma shows real pride in her perspective and stands up for herself. Challenged by Jeff about how she won’t be able to visit sights like China or Niagara Falls due to her blindness, she affirms that she’s already done everything she wants in life.

Soon after Bjork began speaking out about Von Trier’s sexual harassment, the abusive atmosphere towards women at his Zentropa Productions company was exposed too, as nine women told the Danish newspaper Politiken they too were harassed there. Von Trier is capable of creating complex female characters and treating them respectfully, as in Melancholia. That film shows two sisters dealing with the end of the world, with a lifetime of depression turning out to be a surprising preparation for coping with it. And as much as he’s been accused of misogyny, the filmmaker also nails a type of hypocritical liberal man that winds up enacting the personal and social damage he claims to be out to prevent. He may heap abuse upon his female characters, but his worst venom is directed towards such two-faced men. Take Willem Dafoe’s character in Antichrist, who worsens his wife’s mental crisis by taking away her antidepressants, while claiming this will help her. Or Stellan Skarsgard’s pleasant, apparently virginal voice of reason in Nymphomaniac, who eventually shows his capacity for sexual violence. But Melancholia is something of an outlier in von Trier’s filmography because it’s so unconcerned with baiting his audience (even if he ruined its reception at Cannes, and subsequently made himself a persona non grata by making tasteless Hitler jokes.) Dancer in the Dark marks the point where the persona took over the reigns of directing Von Trier films from the artist – not necessarily for the better.

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