Darkness Visible

The title Dancer in the Dark promises a stunt performance, and the film, which opens the New York Film Festival on Friday and goes into release the following day, doesn't disappoint. Lars von Trier's latest curiosity is too calculated to seem like a folly but too clumsily executed to exert much mind control. At the very least, this deliriously downbeat vehicle for the postpunk diva Björk has generated the controversy the Danish dogmatist has relentlessly courted. Is Dancer in the Dark a feel-bad, anti-American parody of Hollywood musicals or a quasi-documentary exploitation of its unusual leading lady? The answer, of course, is both.

The movie announces its pretensions with a three-minute road-show overture, then plunges immediately into a disorienting amateur rehearsal of The Sound of Music. Peering through outsize, horn-rimmed glasses, the frumpy-looking, childlike Björk is playing the part of Maria, with her friend, a wanly chic Catherine Deneuve, as who knows what. The scene is infectiously humorous in an unavoidably snide way—not to mention fascinating. As an actress, Björk is purely behavioral, and if Deneuve—playing a character with the un-Deneuve-like diminutive "Cathy"—seems a bit put out, it may be because she's unsure just how long von Trier is prepared to let this creature perform.

For the most part, Dancer in the Dark is shot vérité style, on video, with jump cuts, broken pans, and English dialogue that might have been improvised on the spot. Björk is cast as a fey yet feisty waif, a pathetic Iron Curtain refugee who is losing her sight even as her imagination is nourished by old movie musicals—she's twice shown watching 42nd Street. The numbers she envisions are filmed in full color with studio lighting, although, as befits the movie's stark, tear-jerking plot, their context is aggressively drab. To add to the distanciation, the characters are apt to discuss musicals and their relationship to life. Meanwhile, Björk—who is not only in every scene but sings every solo—is an automatic alienation-effect who always seems to be speaking phonetic English and dancing with herself.

Let the creature perform: Björk and Deneuve in Dancer in the Dark
photo: D. Koskas
Let the creature perform: Björk and Deneuve in Dancer in the Dark


Dancer in the Dark
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
A Fine Line release
Opens September 23

New York Film Festival
Alice Tully Hall and Avery Fisher Hall
September 22 through October 9
NYFF Main Program

To call Dancer in the Dark melodramatic is to say the least. The plot would shame D.W. Griffith: Single mother Björk is working two factory shifts and saving her pennies to get her son an operation before he goes blind as well. The same day that she's fired for inadvertently breaking a machine, a kindly neighbor steals her money. The circumstances that drive Björk to murder turn the movie from the merely hopeless to the actively unpleasant. Once she's busted, Dancer in the Dark moves into its Joan of Arc phase, complete with Björk caterwauling "My Favorite Things" a cappella on death row.

Von Trier's press statements have made much of his "communist" parents' disapproval of Hollywood musicals. To judge from Dancer in the Dark's blatant Cold War signposting, they must have immersed young Lars in Soviet kitsch. An elfin immigrant from People's Czechoslovakia, Björk's character lives in an imaginary America that, despite its Twin Peaks patina, is far closer to the invented U.S.A. of Soviet propaganda films like Silver Dust. (The foreman has a picture of Dwight Eisenhower in his office.) Her machine-music-scored dances of industrial production suggest the Stalinist Cinderella story The Shining Path, while her eventual plight even has echoes of Ethel Rosenberg.

The crazy thing is that, sarcastic as Dancer is, it actually works as an anti-capital-punishment tract—an appropriately Pyrrhic victory for a movie far too mannered to be much more than an elaborate prelude to an abrupt punchline. (J. Hoberman)

Dancer in the Dark opens a festival that strives valiantly to build on the outstanding success of last year's edition. What's most striking is the formidable East Asian component. There are eight features from Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. Hardly window dressing, these movies provide the festival with much of its dramatic heft (Edward Yang's Yi Yi, Jia Zhang Ke's Platform, Shinji Aoyama's Eureka), most of its pop panache (Takeshi Kitano's Brother, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Im Kwon-Taek's Chunhyang), and nearly all of its auteurist glamour (Nagisa Oshima's Gohatto, Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love). Not many surprises, although Liv Ullmann's Faithless and Ed Harris's Pollock aren't the white elephants one might expect. The festival's real centerpiece, however, is Terence Davies's enthralling, precise, and monumentally poignant adaptation of The House of Mirth—saved, it now appears, from the indignity of a straight-to-cable release. (JH)

Chunhyang Based on an 18th-century Korean folk opera, this spectacularly costumed quasi-musical has at its heart a familiar but still moving love story. A prostitute's daughter and the son of a governor fall in love only to be separated by cruel and corrupt state officials. The great veteran director Im Kwon-Taek turns every timeworn turn of the plot into a special occasion for the eye. September 23 and 25. (Amy Taubin)

Boesman and Lena John Berry died shortly after completing this adaptation of Athol Fugard's play about the taunting, tormented codependency that binds a homeless couple camped out in the mudflats surrounding Cape Town. Berry, who also directed the 1970 Circle in the Square production, gives total rein to his performers—Danny Glover and a full-throttle Angela Bassett—and, to dilute the prevailing staginess, relies on striking wide-screen landscapes for a sense of existential barrenness. September 23 and 24. (Dennis Lim)

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