To her credit, Björk definitely holds the movie together, and while she's about as much of an actress as Bruce Willis is a pop star, her natural charisma and the overwhelming intensity of her emotions should blind a lot of viewers to the ludicrousness of the story and the intentionally rotten videography by veteran DP Robby Müller (known for his work with Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, and Wim Wenders). Truly, it is a crying shame that the musical segments in Dancer in the Dark were not preserved in Cinemascope and Technicolor, because they're not only the best parts of the movie (brilliantly choreographed by Vincent Paterson, who has helped Madonna and Michael Jackson get a groove on), they are, in both senses, moving pieces of art. Björk is in complete control when she's singing and dancing, and it's gratifying to watch her, exultant, greeting the authorities with "They're here for me!" or sharing quick squeezes of lovin' with the inmates along her 107 steps to doom. Likewise, the sequences aboard the freight train and in the courtroom (the latter featuring a delightful appearance by Joel Grey) are simply glorious. But when it transpires that no one in her life is able to scrape together 2,000 bucks to save her life, the movie just feels like an exercise in irony-free sadism, an endurance test for oversaturated psyches.
Established as a global superstar of cinema (with the Palme d'Or for this mess indicating -- along with profligate nuclear testing and that Jerry Lewis fixation -- that the French are sometimes a few slices short of a baguette), von Trier is a master of provocation, but he's often a weakling in terms of substance, throwing ugly tantrums rather than romancing us with ingenious miseries. The whole Dogme 95 manifesto (co-scripted with Thomas Vinterberg, who has, with The Celebration, put it to better use) is already starting to seem like a hackneyed distraction ("We do solemnly swear to make technically inept movies"), rather than the divining rod of "purity" it should have been. If von Trier were to put down the multiple Panasonics and pick up a Panavision, we might get a chance to experience more of his vision, behind the blurry muck and distortion. As Björk said in a press conference, "Most of the world is driven by the eye; they design cities to look great, but they sound terrible." In like fashion, von Trier designs his works to scratch our souls (and, sometimes, as in Breaking the Waves or The Kingdom and its sequel, they leave lasting scars), but without a crackling ghost story or a powerful actor like Emily Watson, his work starts to feel bloated, self-important, and boring.
There are other arguments available, of course -- that von Trier has sculpted Dancer in the Dark as a modern fable, that it weighs in on the plight of the eternal feminine in the crushing post-industrial age -- but such theorizing seems far too lofty for the cheap, grungy tragedy von Trier has spewed forth this time. Apart from those wonderful musical segments, Dancer in the Dark is just a big bag of gas, redundant and flatulent, and might fare as well under the title Breaking the Wind.
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