It’s gone down in the history books that “Dancer in the Dark” director Lars Von Trier was an author of the Dogme 95 Manifesto. I look on it as a publicity stunt, much like the New Wave employed to pull audiences away from Europe’s classical, old school directors in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Neither Von Von Trier nor his pal Vintnerburg took much time setting out the regulations for their “vow of chastity,” and like the patriarchs of many a holy order, they never observed the rules themselves. The guys were undoubtedly high when they wrote it. Not that it wasn’t a good plan. Doors were opened for independent filmmakers that could do more with less thanks to them.
“The Ascent” was made long before Dogme 95, or anything like it. Yet it is a predecessor by default. There was no budget for modern FX shots in Shapitko’s film, so it conforms to that Dogme regulation. The killings are about as low-tech as you can get. Death by rope. While it is a period piece with guns and costumes, I will argue that Shepitko’s choice of time and place was meant strictly to comment on the “here and now” staying true in spirit to the Dogme protocol. It’s scenes were shot on location so, in that way, it conforms as well. The film is not in color but neither is the Russian winter, so the color rule is irrelevant here. It all costs money and so Sheptiko didn’t apply much of a score. She kept music spare using some where it counted most, abandoning it wherever the wailing wind on location could provide more.
My point is that if Dogme 95 was a return to purity of story, superiority of performance and economy of production, “The Ascent” was the kind of movie that Dogme was meant to be a return to. The seal of authenticity in Dogme’s chastity vow will never be more sacrosanct than in Shepitko’s films. We are talking about the anonymous attribution rule. Even though her name was attached, Shapitko was an artist in a socialist country. Ideologically speaking, at least, the films she made were property of the state. The State as Auteur sounds like a great topic for film scholarship, by the way. If someone will commission it, I’d be interested in contributing a piece.
Larissa Shepitko succeeded in convincingly capturing her character’s transformations in long takes. Lars Von Trier goes to the extreme opposite, cutting together Selma’s song and dance routines from a thousand different clips. Every time his blind heroine comes to an emotional turning point, the filmmaker speed shifts into overdrive, covering the action with no less than 100 cameras at the same time. That’s what he claims, anyway. I find the prospect of looking with that many eyes intriguing. Not only is this daring filmmaker spiking his fine tuned drama with good, old-fashioned, mid-20th century song and dance, but all these scenes, featuring Selma’s psychological shape-shifts, are virtually hosed-down. There are cameras concealed everywhere.
“Dancer” is not Dogme. Dogme 95 rhapsodizes ironically over the virtues of chastity which, in this case, was a rejection of superfluous technology of any kind. Even things like props were considered too contrived unless they happened to be found in the place where the scene is filmed. Such constraints appeal to all kinds of artists, not just Dogme directors, for economic considerations if none other. “Dancer” is not a Dogme film anyway. Lars Von Trier has never made one. Anyway, almost everything the man says and does turns into something for him to contradict later on.
When I poled my movie loving friends about “Dancer in the Dark,” a couple of them said they were put-off by Bjork repeatedly breaking into song. Was it because it was Bjork doing it and they don’t like her? Or is that they just don’t like musicals? You know who you are. I’m asking you now.
I’m not fond of many musicals myself, but, by sheer coincidence, I just got home from a screening of Footlight Parade (1933) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. What a lot of fun that was. If you don’t like musicals, try that one. It sports just the kind of numbers Selma concocts her emotional eclipses with in “Dancer.” My favorite motion picture musical is “Cabaret.” Both “Cabaret” and “Dancer in the Dark” portray single women seeking refuge in the song and dance.
“Dancer,” is an anatomy of hope, an autopsy on denial and a kind of primer on going blind. The project was an experiment with hybrid filming techniques and on the cutting edge in other ways besides. It won the Palme dé Or at Cannes. Bjork won the best actress prize. Von Trier’s gamble allows us to watch a 1950’s American melodrama and a 1930’s Busby Berkley musical, simultaneously, through 21st century eyes.
Bjork wrote the songs for “Dancer in the Dark,” with an assist on lyrics from Von Trier and Sjøn. For the most part they come across. Only the first and the last numbers left me unmoved. I wonder if it’s because Bjork sings with her tongue sticking out that some non-fans can’t take her. She’s too quirky for some, a shaman to others. In any case, the bulk of her musical contributions to this film work wonders.
Art film veteran, Catherine Deneuve makes every line count in her supporting role. She’s a real friend. There are a handful of actors from Europe in the film. All of them except Bjork and Deneuve are playing rural Washingtonians. Deneuve’s character Kathy plays an immigrant and the only actor with a credible accent, I might ad.
With Von Trier, the use of foreigners to play Americans becomes part of the text and works especially well, in the case of character Jeff, played by Swedish actor Peter Stormare. His inconsistent intonations and ninety mile stare contribute to the intended impression that Jeff’s not quite all there.
There are lapses in craft, when it gets right down to it, on both sides of this film. The handheld camerawork, for instance, must have made thousands of more skilled handlers curse Lars Von Trier.
The French New Wave fetishized such accidents, in each other’s work to popularize a new, fast and loose aesthetic. When a movie sweeps me up as profoundly as this one does, to be honest, I don’t really care.
…to be continued next month.