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.
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)
The House of Mirth Gillian Anderson’s performance as the marriage-shy, too-trusting Lily Bart, who’s manipulated, betrayed, and destroyed by old New York’s careless and hypocritical blue-blood society, is a revelation. Terence Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s greatest novel moves with severity and grace toward its heartbreaking conclusion. September 23 and 24. (AT)
Body and Soul The most distinguished of the Black Pioneer Oscar Micheaux’s jazz-age silents features Paul Robeson in his screen debut (and in a double, really triple, role). To further burnish the collaboration, an Eastman House archival print of this 1925 production will be accompanied by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. September 24. (JH)
Krapp’s Last Tape Samuel Beckett’s brilliantly self-reflexive solo for actor and recording device seems like a natural for Atom Egoyan, but the director proceeds with a reverential caution that’s matched by John Hurt’s exceedingly correct performance. It might have been more fun to watch a “personality” like Walter Matthau or Richard Farnsworth play Beckett, but at least the banana-peel gag still works. Screening with Neil Jordan’s short Not I, in which Julianne Moore plays Beckett’s mouthpiece. No distributor. September 24 and 25. (JH)
The Comedy of Innocence Raul Ruiz doesn’t come any more lighthearted or simpleminded than in his riff on the confusion precipitated by a nine-year-old boy with a digital camera and an imaginary friend. Starting out as a philosophical inquiry, this largely unfunny comedy becomes first a ghost story and then a minor psychological thriller. There are a few trademark eccentricities—notably Isabelle Huppert’s weirdly polite affect as a mother whose son replaces her with a stranger. No distributor. September 26 and 28. (JH)
The Circle The big prizewinner at the Venice Film Festival, Jafar Panahi’s strongest film to date transcends the urban labyrinth of The White Balloon to spend a day switching from one beleaguered female protagonist to the next, ultimately suggesting that, in Iran, all women are born in prison. The old Eastern European cinema lives . . . in the Islamic Republic. No distributor. September 26 and 27. (JH)
Brother Takeshi Kitano’s return to yakuzaland transposes Sonatine to L.A. There are several genuinely startling shoot-outs (not to mention the highest NYFF body count since the Big One fell at the first festival in Fail-Safe). That said, the movie is more tedious than it is well wrought. Kitano loses inspiration midway through, although he does makes an indelible impression on his eventual soul brother Omar Epps. September 27 and 28. (JH)
Faithless A tale of adulterous intellectuals is elaborated with a framing device in which an aged filmmaker, Erland Josephson, interviews his characters. The movie, ponderously directed by Liv Ullmann from Ingmar Bergman’s script, has the visual texture of a furniture showroom and is grossly overlong—Ullmann could have cut 40 minutes by trimming Josephson’s reaction shots alone—but once the drama kicks in, there are some stunning scenes. September 29 and October 2. (JH)
George Washington David Gordon Green’s first feature is an unlikely amalgam of Gummo and Fresh—an arty, sincere evocation of preadolescent tragedy on the derelict edge of a small Southern city. Turned down by “New Directors” only to be invited by its big sibling, the film transcends an erratic point of view, a somewhat unconvincing social reality, and several stilted performances to achieve a genuine sense of sorrow and loss unusual among American indies. September 29 and October 1. (JH)
Gohatto The power of sexuality to disrupt social hierarchies is Oshima’s great theme. Here, a gorgeous, long-haired young samurai stirs up homoerotic desire and homophobia in a 19th-century squadron. Similar to Claire Denis’s Beau Travail in its connection of sexual obsession and the fading of empires, the film is genuinely transgressive, although it occasionally backtracks into camp. September 30 and October 2. (AT)
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine The first movie in 20 years by long-banned Iranian filmmaker Bahman Farmanara is a humorously death-haunted psychodrama in which the director undertakes an absurd quest to document his own funeral. The kind and portly Farmanara is an intensely sympathetic figure (at least in his onscreen persona), but he would have to be Andrei Tarkovsky to bring off this fusion of memory, fantasy, and social satire. September 30 and October 3. (JH)
Seven Men From Now Long unavailable and newly restored, Budd Boetticher’s first Randolph Scott western initiated a cycle that marked the end of the traditional western. No one thought much about it back then except André Bazin, who, in 1957, hailed the film as “exemplary,” perhaps the best example of the genre he’d seen since World War II. September 30. (JH)
Pollock Working every moment, producer-director-star Ed Harris treats Jackson Pollock to the full van Gogh. His childlike, self-absorbed, unhappy painter has no charm—just genius and dipsomania. (Marcia Gay Harden’s Lee Krasner is equally convincing, albeit less muse than noodge.) The movie is unsentimental, intelligent fun, and surprisingly good at evoking the vertigo of people living on the edge. September 30 and October 1. (JH)
The Gleaners and I A tiny, digital video camera afforded Agnes Varda the necessary intimacy with her subjects—modern-day gleaners, who earn their daily bread by picking through the leftovers of an affluent society. The film itself is a kind of gleaning. Its most stunning moment occurs when Varda, inadvertently, turns the camera on her own weathered hand. October 1. (AT)
In the Mood for Love The most fetishistic romance since Vertigo, Wong Kar-wai’s exquisite, erotic memory piece, set in the vanished Hong Kong of the early ’60s, pairs Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as next-door neighbors who are drawn together when they discover their spouses are having an affair. Less a narrative than a poetic evocation of desire, it works its spell through Cheung’s swaying hips, Leung’s yearning glances, and the silken samba rhythms of Nat King Cole. October 1 and 3. (AT)
Yi Yi Edward Yang’s most fully realized film in nearly a decade walks the edge of sentimental melodrama with only a few missteps as the ambitious writer-director guides a large, multigenerational cast (representing a cross-section of Taipei’s striving class) through a succession of emotional and spiritual crises. The movie’s funny, understated meditation on urban life is subtly reinforced by Yang’s carefully chosen locations in this placeless city. October 4. (JH)
Kippur Based on director Amos Gitai’s personal experience in the 1973 Israeli-Arab War, this harrowing but not particularly thoughtful combat movie focuses on a helicopter rescue team patrolling the chaotic front lines and ferrying the victims of Syrian tank attacks back to hospitals. Gitai combines a B-movie’s narrow focus on a single group of men with virtuoso deployment of the machinery of war—Bell helicopters and Centurion tanks supplied by the Israeli army. October 5. (AT)
Amores Perros Given its bruising camerawork, bravura chronology, and overall brutal gusto, anyone watching Alejandro González Iñarritu’s first feature might be pardoned for thinking that the title is Spanish for Reservoir Dogs. “Love’s a Bitch” is undeniably high powered but fatally overlong—the first episode is a throat-grabber but it exhausts the resources of the filmmaker’s style. October 5 and 8. (JH)
Before Night Falls Julian Schnabel sticks to a straightforward biopic format in adapting the memoirs of late gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. The movie’s politics are more simplistic than Arenas’s own and there’s an episodic obviousness to it, but Schnabel, for the most part, keeps the episodes pertinent, fleeting, and vivid. Javier Bardem’s central performance has both gravity and verve, and the cameos from a dolled-up Johnny Depp and a barely recognizable Sean Penn are priceless. October 6 and 8. (DL)
The Taste of Others Veteran screenwriter Agnes Jaoui comes into her own as a director with this effervescent, oddball romantic comedy. The unlikely heartthrob Jean-Pierre Bacri plays a newly successful businessman who’s smitten by his English tutor when he sees her on stage playing a Racine heroine. Unfortunately he already has a wife, not to mention a bodyguard or two with complicated love lives of their own. October 6 and 7. (AT)
Eureka Totally absorbing and at moments transcendent, this three-and-a-half-hour, basically black-and-white Cinemascope road movie by the young Japanese director Shinji Aoyama transports you into its near-magical world. The soulful Koji Yakusho (the romantic hero of Shall We Dance?) plays a bus driver who dedicates his life to healing two children—fellow survivors of a hijacking. Traces of Kurosawa and Ford abound, but Aoyama’s utterly contemporary perspective is all his own. No distributor. October 7. (AT)
Chronically Unfeasible Sergio Bianchi’s barbed, bitter, Brechtian satire of class and race relations in Brazil spares no one but takes particular pleasure in skewering the hypocrisy of the liberal intelligentsia. Focusing on the owners, employees, and patrons of a São Paulo restaurant, the film juxtaposes the fantasy image of multiculti Brazil with the reality of an oppressive, hierarchical state. No distributor. October 7. (AT)
Platform Young Chinese director Jia Zhangke follows his spare pickpocket drama, Xiao Wu, with a decade-spanning mosaic, a sprawling yet eccentrically economical document of sociocultural transition told through the lives of the members of a small-town performance troupe. As road-movie musicals go, it’s a bracing antidote to the bluster and fakery of Almost Famous. No distributor. October 8. (DL)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Add another bland period piece to Ang Lee’s oeuvre. Festival audiences have been creaming for this meandering homage to Hong Kong martial-arts flicks, but despite one spectacular swordfight atop swaying trees and the beauty of the lead actors—youngsters Chang Chen and Zhang Ziyi, veterans Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh—the sketchy characters and diffuse plot leave you with no one to root for. October 9. (AT)