Dancer in the Dark: a manipulative film with a conservative and disheartening message

Lars von Trier, “Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Lars von Trier’s one attempt at making a tractor musical is the third and final installment in a fairy-tale trilogy of films in which the heroine is a good-hearted innocent who, believing she has committed a gross sin, makes amends by sacrificing everything she has even at the cost of her own life. In the trilogy, the heroine’s innocence arises from an inability to relate meaningfully to the world around her and von Trier makes no attempt to explain how this inability, which either comes across as stupidity or self-centredness, has come about originally. Whatever the source or cause of this inability, the heroine’s innocence leads her to make one blunder after another in the belief that she is being justly punished. She is eventually caught up in a vicious downward spiral that all but destroys her.

Von Trier uses this template to make sense of American society with its fascination for guns and gun-related violence and the legal and bureaucratic process that takes an innocent person from being framed for murder all the way to the gallows. Selma (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant working at a dreary and poorly paid job in a factory somewhere in rural America. She has come to the US in the hope of earning and saving enough money for her 10-year-old son to have an eye operation; he has inherited a genetic condition from Selma which is causing her own eyes to fail. In the meantime, Selma works furiously at the factory to earn extra money before her vision fades away completely, and in her spare time, she rehearses for an amateur production of a famous musical and goes to the cinema with her friend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) to watch Hollywood musicals.

Selma and her son live in a trailer on the property of a police officer, Bill (David Morse), who is behind in his interest payments to his bank and whose wage cannot support his wife’s lavish life-style. Bill steals the money Selma has saved and this leads to an altercation between them that has disastrous consequences for Selma.

The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese attacked by machine guns and the entire set-up of the film is unbelievably crude and aimed at extracting the maximum amount of sentimentality, tears and melodrama. Characters are drawn in such a watery way that one feels no sympathy for any of them, least of all for the son on whom Selma pins all her hopes: the boy appears to feel no gratitude for his mum for all the sacrifices she is making on his behalf but wags school whenever he can to go fishing. Save for Jeff (Peter Stormare) and Cathy who bust their guts hauling Selma’s arse out of trouble throughout the film, all characters are single-minded and self-centred and viewers can feel no sympathy for Selma when, under stress, she blanks out into a surreal beautiful fantasy world of bright colour, singing and dancing. The actors do what they can to flesh out their characters but one gets the feeling their talents were wasted.

The most disturbing aspects of the film are the messages expressed through Selma’s behaviour and her excuses and justifications for doing what she does. She believes that in giving birth to her son, who is thus cursed with her genetic condition, because she wanted someone to love and to love her back, she has behaved selfishly and must therefore suffer whatever punishments befall her. In this way, she will achieve an inner peace. This horrific conservative message is one that has been peddled, and is still being peddled, by many if not most of the most rapacious and destructive institutions in Western society over the centuries: hundreds of millions of people have suffered and died, often in horrible and traumatic ways, because their political, social and religious leaders decreed that they should accept their destinies meekly as the will of God or some other external authority and not try to improve their lives. The absurdity of Selma’s beliefs reaches its peak in her refusal to hire a lawyer to defend her against criminal charges pressed on her because she believes her son needs her money more than she does, even though this refusal means she is certain to die an early death and leave her son an orphan.

Selma even appears to welcome going blind: in one of several silly songs she sings, she rejoices that she has seen enough of everything and that there’s nothing more for her to see. Presumably once she goes blind, she’ll stay permanently in Hollywood musical fantasy land, where she loves to be, while the rest of the world sails on by and leaves her behind. In this way, she will preserve her “innocence” and “purity”, both of which are really little more than self-interest and ignorance. Selma is not curious about the world around her and seems unconcerned about how her son will cope without her. When the world does intrude on her “reality”, she therefore is unable to deal with it at all; instead she zooms on ahead with little thought for the consequences. When she becomes teary-eyed, one is tempted to believe this is instinctive – the cry of an animal caught in a leg trap – and self-serving with no thought for how the son will survive on his own.

The real pity here is that in Selma’s tragic tale, there is plenty of material that von Trier could have made a half-decent film from: the exploitation of factory workers working their butts off in mind-numbing mass assembly line work; lower middle class people being stiffed by their employers and banks to breaking point; the legal system which chews up wrongly charged and convicted people without money or influence and spits them onto death row; American mainstream society’s dislike of alternative politics and economic organisation, especially socialist culture; and the apparently inexorable machine process that sends Selma to her death. I see the film as insulting to the people who do end up on death row without proper legal representation because they are poor and because the system and culture that put them on the train-track to death have always discriminated against them. ¬†However von Trier, like his heroines, prefers to live cocooned in a world of fantasy where beautiful things are unspoilt by reality, a world in which people, if they are to be good, must quietly and uncomplainingly accept the political, social and economic context in which they live their lives and not question the injustices that arise in such a context. Such a message surely appeals to those disappointed with the current state of the world, in which democracy, the social welfare state and co-operative endeavours to improve well-being and eliminate poverty appear to have failed.

As it is, the film is unconvincing and manipulative, wallowing in misery and grimness merely for the sake of doing so, and with no message that would inspire hope or sympathy in viewers for its characters or for the predicament they find themselves in.

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