The legend of Lars Von Trier — part deserved, part self-constructed — comes crashing to the ground with “Dancer in the Dark,” a 2 1/2-hour demo of auteurist self-importance that’s artistically bankrupt on almost every level. An attempt to feed off the heritage of the traditional Hollywood musical while reinterpreting it for a young, modern audience through the prism of Von Trier’s romantic fatalism, pic shows nary a sign of the bold innovator of “The Kingdom” and “Breaking the Waves” nor the genuine provocateur of “The Idiots.” Result looks destined to have its ardent supporters and may turn a buck or two through clever exploitation of its lead, Icelandic singer-composer Bjork, but outside the festival circuit and highly specialized venues, “Dancer” looks set to dance its way into B.O. darkness.
Where other recent attempts to reinvent the Hollywood musical, such as Kenneth Branagh’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” have been driven primarily by a love of the genre backed by solid knowledge of its rules (even when breaking them), “Dancer” seems determined to cannibalize the genre while constructing nothing fresh or substantial in its place.
Pic has all the feel of a film buff gratuitously deconstructing the genre and lacking any feel for music or movement beyond the most obvious. Typically, Von Trier’s inspiration seems to be not so much classic Hollywood/Broadway musicals in their original form but ’60s Euro refits (most notably Jacques Demy’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort”), sans love or admiration.
Originally known as “Taps,” but refashioned and retitled when American choreographer Vincent Paterson (“Evita,” “The Birdcage”) came on board to change the musical sequences to more regular show dancing, pic makes extensive use of video shooting, with a reputed 100 cameras used for each of the seven musical numbers.
Widescreen result, even on the large sheet, is surprisingly sharp, with little bleariness during camera movement, though the cool, bleached colors (slightly enriched in the musical numbers) always betray their vid origins.
At no point, however, does the movie make an artistic case for not shooting on emotionally more resonant celluloid. Whereas in “Breaking the Waves,” Von Trier’s jagged camerawork and roughly textured visuals paid eventual dividends in reflecting the heroine’s spiritual dislocation, in “Dancer” his use of video seems merely like technical onanism by a director who couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted during shooting.
Editing of the ensemble musical numbers is unimaginative, on-the-beat cutting , with no feel for the choreography or musical shape of a sequence — which, given Bjork’s free-form, impressionistic approach to composing, is badly needed.
Sliver of a story is set in a rural area (said to be mid-’60s Washington state in the press notes but not identified in the film itself), where nerdy-looking Czech immigrant Selma (Bjork) is working at a small pressing plant , trying to build a life for herself and her young son, Gene (Vladica Kostic).
Her best friend on the factory floor is another European (presumably French), the middle-aged Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), and outside work she’s close to her landlords, cop Bill (David Morse) and his wife, Jean (Cara Seymour).
Selma’s secret is that she is on the verge of becoming blind — and that her son will face the same fate without surgery. She is squirreling away money to pay for an eye operation for Gene as soon as he’s 13 and has already saved up $ 2,000.
When the cash-strapped Bill confesses to her that he’s almost bankrupt from his wife’s overspending, Selma shares her secret with him. Then one day, her savings, kept in a tin hidden in her kitchen, are missing.
When Selma confronts Bill about the stolen cash, he’s initially drowned in guilt but then pulls a gun on her. In a subsequent struggle he ends up dead, and Selma is charged with first degree murder and put on trial.
Von Trier’s script threads other developments through this main story, including a friendship with a local hick, Jeff (Peter Stormare), which she quietly prevents from developing into anything more, and rehearsals for an amateur production of “The Sound of Music,” in which Selma is starring as Maria.
In love with American musicals but increasingly hampered by her growing blindness, Selma, with the help of Kathy, tries to disguise her affliction from the musical’s increasingly harried director (Paterson).
The musical numbers are mostly presented as Selma’s fantasies: on the factory floor, triggered by the machines’ cacophony; on a bridge with Jeff, where a freight train trundles by; in a room at Bill’s house, where she imagines herself dancing with his resurrected body; and even during rehearsals of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in the local hall.
Not only are the lyrics made almost inaudible by the thick, muffled sound mix of the ensemble sequences (thereby rendering their dramatic commentary negligible), but also the antsy, obvious editing robs them of any choreographic impact.
Paterson’s work looks solid enough, but its true virtues lie somewhere in the thousands of minutes of vid footage shot by the multiple cameras for numbers that last only five minutes each at most.
Pic’s most affecting musical numbers come when Bjork is left alone to do what she does best, crooning mystically in her cell or, at the very end, pouring out her still-undiminished optimism (“Next to Last Song”).
Wearing thick, geeky glasses and defiantly unglamorous, Bjork makes an occasionally touching, mostly awkward thesp who’s in line with the self-sacrificing heroines of Von Trier’s “Waves” and “The Idiots” (to which “Dancer” forms the third of his so-called “Golden Heart” trilogy). Crucially, however, the pop thrush lacks the acting smarts, which Emily Watson possessed in “Waves,” to turn the deliberately naive characterization into powerful drama.
Also dissipating the efforts of the rest of the cast are the yards of feeble, uninteresting dialogue and uninspired, hand-held shooting (with Von Trier himself operating for d.p. Robby Mueller). The handheld footage, in particular, has none of the urgency, irony or cumulative mystique that Von Trier has shown in the past. Here it simply looks like he’s run out of ideas.
Deneuve, recalling Demy’s French musicals simply by her presence, makes little impact in a role originally written for a black American woman. Rest of the cast is equally bland, including a milquetoast Stormare as Selma’s putative b.f. and Morse as her cop friend. In a further nod to musical theater, Joel Grey makes a late-on cameo that’s simply silly.
Rural Sweden stands in reasonably well for small town America, and interiors, shot in a Danish studio, are OK in their period feel, with the blue-collar costuming likewise. Pic is fronted by a three-minute, Nordic-flavored overture, making atmospheric use of moony horns, before the curtains part.