Of course, cinema has been dying for a very long time--no doubt since the moment someone thought to anoint movies as an art--and we all love a good death scene. Around the time he filmed Jean-Paul Belmondo thrashing like a stuck flounder on the Paris pavements at the end of Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard opined that his crowd, the young creators of the French New Wave, were only recognizing that the kinds of movies they really loved could no longer be made, had already passed into history. Their own movies, Godard suggested, were a way of mourning.
The main difference between Godard circa 1960 and Denmark's Lars Von Trier circa 2000, one might say, lies in what is being mourned. Godard's generation mainly mourned American genre films like musicals and gangster movies (which together comprised an emblem of cinema's Eden, its unrecapturable innocence) and in doing so, they created the modernist European art film. Von Trier, in his recent work, and perhaps his work as a whole, mourns the passing of that very same mod.Euro.art.film, although duller-witted viewers of his Dancer in the Dark will be forgiven for thinking that he's paying tribute to the bygone genre of the musical.
Speaking of the dull-(and otherwise-)witted, the two aesthetic transitions noted above can't be fully appraised without reference to audiences. The New Wave's films reflected a viewer, French and worldwide, that had moved or was moving, moviewise, from innocence to knowingness, the latter being defined as an understanding that invested cinema with the discriminations of classical culture, modernist literature, and so on. In retrospect this movement can easily be seen as the valiant last stand of mass upperbrowism, aka book-smartness, in the West. In any case, the movement implied by Von Trier's films runs in exactly the opposite direction: Its viewer, having swallowed that old knowingness whole, imagines himself smart even as he rapidly grows dumber and dumber--i.e., uneducated in anything but pop "culture" and therefore increasingly incapable of meaningful discriminations.
At the moment a prime emblem of this postmodern puerility is Robert Wise's The Sound of Music. I don't of course mean this estimable movie is puerile; for anyone who may care, it's the studio system's last great musical and easily one of the best Hollywood films of the '60s, a bad decade for Hollywood films. But Wise's expertly sticky-sweet songfest has lately turned into a fetish object for people desperate to feel superior to pop entertainments while remaining in abject, simpering thrall to same.
The phenomenon comes to us from--where else?--dimmest England, where the sport of travestying The Sound of Music in costume and song last year became a fad among, as The New York Times noted recently, an audience of gay men and middle-aged women. Now, I would submit that such localized silliness in itself is no proof of cultural collapse. What worries me is when it gets a cheery endorsement from the Anglofools at The New Yorker, and, worse, 20th Century-Fox rereleases the movie as a campified "singalong"--apparently incognizant that most filmgoers would be happy to take it, shall we say, straight, and indeed that the studio could make mountains of money with a carefully managed, noncampy revival.
Dancer in the Dark inhabits the same murky terrain. In opening with a scene in which its protagonist, played by the singer Björk, is rehearsing a small-town stage production of The Sound of Music, the film announces its appeal to people whose identities are bound up with things like snickering at the Wise movie. (Go to any show of Dancer and you're sure to hear their fatuous, idiotic chortles.) Yet if this indicates certain limitations of the newer film, it doesn't describe its totality. Because Dancer is also for people who're bothered by anyone's urge to sneer at old-style pop innocence.
Shot by Robby Muller in widescreen digital video, Von Trier's film (using the term figuratively) features Björk as Selma, a Czech immigrant to the United States who works in a rural factory making stainless steel sinks. Rapidly going blind, she's determined to save money to pay for an operation to save her son, Gene, from the same fate. But life has some nasty surprises in store. Selma's creepy landlord Bill (Dave Morse) swipes her savings, and in trying to recover them, she commits a crime that can send her to the death house. The only compensation for all this kitchen-sink dreariness, it turns out, is that Selma's mind occasionally drifts into a place where her life's transformed into a big, splashy movie musical.
Although obviously influenced by self-conscious latter-day Euro musicals like Jacques Demy's several and Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, Dancer stands apart with a unique trademark: its thorough, painstaking ludicrousness. Not only is the story sheer, unvarnished pulp bathos (like Titanic, its plot might have come from a penny-dreadful of a century ago) but everything surrounding it is similarly hootable. The tale's characters, mostly American, are played by the Euro likes of Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour and Jean-Marc Barr. America itself, meanwhile, is played by a Swedish soundstage decked out as an armchair gauchiste's vision of current redneck-proletarian abjection.
Von Trier unquestionably deserves credit for the absurdist wit in all this. Unlike the makers of the deeply stupid Rosetta, he doesn't pose the setting's Marxist fantasy as something to be taken seriously; he knows it's every bit as goofy as having la grande Deneuve play a blowsy backwoods factory worker named Kathy. Yet one must also allow that the entertainment value of such fancies is too conceptual to be more than very occasionally rib-tickling. And Dancer undeniably suffers from being overlong and raggedly focused; we sit through a lot of dull exposition before those bouncy, color-enhanced musical numbers rescue us.
Still, simple entertainment isn't really what's at stake here. The film's central conceit is a gamble. Von Trier says to viewer: "I know all these dumb, hokey conventions are past redemption. But watch. I'll take them and push them beyond the pale, make them as stupid, ludicrous and unbelievable as I can, and I'll still get you. I'll make your heart leap at the musical numbers, and I'll make you cry in the end." And damn if he doesn't win this wager, which leaves him looking like an artist rather than the chump you half expected.
Though the remaining question--so what?--isn't easily answered, the film's execution sticks to the mind like a hummable tune. Von Trier shot the musical numbers with 100 digital cameras going at once, adding to the impression that his main talent is for stunts, yet the dancing and choreography do hold their own against the technology. The best thing about the entire movie, though, is Björk, who sings like a heavenly chorister, holds the camera like a total natural and wrote a pack of great songs to which Von Trier and Sjon Sigurdsson added the lyrics. Give this woman an Oscar, say I.
Perhaps the main drawback to the whole enterprise is that, in its story of a stainless-hearted woman driven to the depths by the cruel, cruel world, Dancer so closely resembles Breaking the Waves, the director's international breakthrough of four years ago. Was Von Trier, you wonder, so desperate to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes (which Dancer predictably captured) that he was willing to stoop to calculated self-imitation? Has he totally run out of ideas?
Let us be charitable and allow that Dancer may be a purposeful companion piece to Waves, one that reminds us of the other half of the art film's European-American heritage. Much as Waves was haunted by Von Trier's Danish forebear Carl Dreyer, the new film fixates on the world of Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly. The latter terrain, though, it sees through the same distanced glass once employed by Godard and company, the prism of European analytic aestheticism and romantic self-projection.
Both Waves and Dancer wonder, with a half-mocking, half-serious concern, what comes after belief, which for many Europeans of recent vintage has meant God or cinema, or sometimes both. The problem is, the question only means something if there's a memory that belief actually mattered, or a sense that it might again. And Von Trier ultimately seems unable to convince himself that content of any sort is ever more than frivolous. All that's left, not surprisingly, are giddy stunts, fanciful formal gestures and a slight, nagging feeling that something crucial has been lost.