Why do I do this to myself? I knew Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" was an incredibly depressing, emotionally exhausting film by reputation. I sat through "Dogville" in a state of endless discomfort, watching Nicole Kidman's heroine being subjected to countless depravities over the course of the three hour running time. I found "Antichrist" practically unwatchable, loaded with shock-cinema imagery in incredibly poor taste. Why would I watch another Von Trier film, particularly the one that is widely considered to be among his most manipulative and upsetting? Because in spite of how unbearable "Dancer in the Dark" is to endure at times, the film is fantastic.
Selma (Icelandic singer Björk) is a Czech immigrant to the United States, who lives with her young son Gene (Vladica Kostic) in a rented trailer, and works a machine press at a local factory. She has a friend in fellow worker Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), who she nicknames Cvalda, and is persistently courted by Jeff (Peter Stormare), who awkwardly offers her rides home every day. Her pleasures in life are few, the main one being her participation in a local theater class, where she has secured the part of Maria in their production of "Sound of Music." However, few realize that Selma's eyesight is failing due to a hereditary condition. She hopes that she can spare Gene from the same fate by saving up enough money for an operation for him, before she becomes completely blind. She shares the secret with her landlord Bill (David Morse) after he confides in her that he has money troubles, which turns out to be a terrible mistake.
And in typical Lars von Trier fashion, the audience is then forced to watch the total disintegration of Selma's life, and it's as traumatic and heart-wrenching as you'd expect. It's also terribly contrived, based on a set of coincidences that grow more and more preposterous with every passing minute. The actions of David Morse's character are complete nonsense. Tragedies compound upon tragedies in an endless downward spiral. The only reason the film manages any believability at all is because of Björk's performance as the naive, innocent Selma. Björk is so open and so vulnerable and offers up such unfettered emotions to the screen, the viewer forgets that she's performing. This is even true in the scenes where Selma escapes from the harshness of reality through daydreams, which turn her immediate surroundings - the factory, a courtroom, a prison - into elaborately staged musical numbers.
Oh yes. Did I mention that "Dancer is the Dark" is a musical? Roughly half a dozen songs were composed for the film by Björk, who also performs them as Selma. If you've never heard Björk before, her music is madly, wonderfully strange, full of whispers and wails and nearly unintelligible lyrics that nonetheless strike deep. Von Trier chose to shoot "Dancer in the Dark" with digital cameras and few production niceties, so the film has a harsh visual realism that's almost Dogme 95 at times, but not quite. He doesn't change the style for the musical numbers, aside from utilizing some more extreme shots and turning up the color saturation a notch, so between Von Trier and Björk these musical interludes are entirely unique. The only thing that's remotely conventional about them is the choreography, patterned after the grand old musicals of the Hollywood Golden Age that Selma adores.
"In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens," Selma says at one point, which one suspects gets to the heart of what Lars von Trier was trying to do with "Dancer in the Dark." He criticizes the musical form, but also uses it to wonderful effect. Sometimes the numbers seem a little shoehorned in, like the one at the factory, but otherwise they are used as they were meant to be, as storytelling devices. The standout is "I've Seen it All," where Selma tries to convince Jeff and herself that she doesn't mind losing her eyesight, and participates in a striking dance sequence aboard a moving train. There are also several nods to musical film tradition, including the presence of Catherine Deneuve and a short, memorable appearance by Joel Grey. I suspect the director may enjoy musicals as much as his heroine does.
In the end, though, he is still Lars von Trier, and must devastate his audience with all the dark powers of filmmaking at his disposal. The ending of "Dancer in the Dark" is one of the most wrenching, intense, and cathartic that I've seen. Perhaps he is needlessly cruel, but at the same time he's so good at it, I can't bring myself to complain. I've never seen a screen musical with this much raw power and impact, and Von Trier is the one to thank for it. Or blame for it. Your choice.