4. Dancer in the Dark: Not the Last Song
Why do I do this to myself? What was I thinking the day I said: ‘You know what? I could go outside and talk to people and smell the roses and see the Great Wall of China but I’d rather rent the Lars Von Trier musical with Bjork in it. No way that can go wrong! Nopety nope!’
IT WENT SO WRONG!
So what happens when you take Von Trier, an avant garde film maker most closely associated with the Dogme 95 movement (In a nutshell: handheld camera, no technical trickery…I recommend Festen) whose work is not exactly known for being mainstream and Icelandic singer song writer Bjork whose work is not exactly known for being mainstream and combine them? One fuck of an awkward film set apparently. Von Trier isn’t exactly know for being kind to actors and this was Bjork’s acting debut.
Keep in mind this is what happens when you simply welcome Bjork to Bangkok:
So it might not surprise you to learn that she began each day on set telling the Director she hated him and spitting at him. Apparently this was as part of her morning routine as brushing her teeth. Which I presume she does with a snowflake wrapped around a wish because she is fucking Bjork:
She is grateful grapefruit. That is all.
She also abandoned the set for several days leading to the film nearly shutting down, what with her being the main character and all. But then she came back. Phew, I guess? Von Trier has said he had planned to give himself a cameo in the film in a scene where a guy chastises Bjork’s character in the cinema. But he was so afraid his hatred towards his leading lady would end in blood if he tried to play the scene that he cast someone to do it in his place.
So how much fun was this for everyone else? Cabaret legend Joel Grey had a small role and in a recent interview claimed the only reason he decided to do the film was to meet the great French actress Catherine Deneuve and he couldn’t give a flying fuck about Bjork or Von Trier. He was also baffled when he recorded his song in a tiny hotel room bathroom with no second take. That’s dogme for you. Deneuve herself reported the process of making the movie was unpleasant because of the terrible two and I get the impression she doesn’t send out Christmas cards to them despite being happy with the end result.
To be honest Dancer in the Dark is more famous for all this bullshit behind the scenes than for the film itself. There might be a reason for that. The plot revolves around a woman named Selma who is going blind and scrimping and saving to pay for corrective surgery for her son’s vision as he has the same degenerative condition. However she is fired from her factory job and robbed by a police officer she considered a friend. Even after he screws her over big stylee via lies and theft she agrees to mercy kill him and let his secret debt die with him even as his wife is already reporting Selma for stealing back her own money. So Selma is arrested and stands trial, deliberately withholding evidence so the ‘victim’ is not disgraced and so her Son, Gene, can still use the money to keep his eyesight. Oh and 40 minutes in it becomes a musical. Cause Bjork.
Are you reading that thinking it sounds like bollocks? Yep me too. Strip away the arty farty stuff and the impressive cast and you have what sounds like one of those ‘this week on a very special episode’ things…This was part of a triology of films Von Trier did based around women who are naïve but brave and it is a bit…Ugh. Just writing that made me barf. I hate naïve but brave people. They suck. They are idiots. I don’t fucking care what happens to them…Or so I thought…
Basically I hate films where characters behave horribly (like the prison guards) and/or stupidly (like Selma) just so we can reach the end game the director has decided on. It always feels forced and often just not that fun to watch. Films don’t have to be realistic, hell there is singing and dancing and the Emcee is there dancing with Bjork for the love of just go with it, but I hate it when I am screaming at the characters to stop acting like knobs and just sort out the misunderstanding via a simple conversation. And sure, it all might have a deeper meaning about American healthcare, xenophobia and the death penalty but none of that stuff is worth the price of the philosophy degree if you don’t want to spend the full running time in this universe.
But the big question is of course: Can Bjork act?
But before all that-Would you like to see/hear the awesome Peter Stormare fail to locate any musical notes successfully in this Oscar nominated song about Selma’s dwindling eyesight? If your answer is ‘Oh God no! What the fuck made you think I was going to say yes to that?’ you will hate this film. Trust me on this one:
Where were we? Ah yes Bjork’s acting. Well despite the useless plot which annoyed me…Oh did I mention she showed up at the Oscars that year dressed as a swan and left eggs on the red carpet?
Excellent. Oh sorry I got distracted again.
Anyway the verdict is in: Bjork is very, very good. Bjork is great. Bjork is better at acting than you. Bjork does 12 more acting than you. Seriously, I know you think a lot of your acting but Bjork is just…
Her work in Dancer in the Dark is captivating and it is a shame she hasn’t done more acting. But for the sake of her spit supply, which I assume she keeps in a music box shaped like a lemon, maybe it is for the best. The fantasy sequences where she tries to block out reality and play in the world of the musicals she loves is something I can relate to and it makes my heart ache and there is some really great music to be enjoyed from these scenes.
And then the film came to the end…
Spoilers ahead…And horror…
So Selma is to be put to death and stands behind her decision to use her recovered money to help her son and not to get a better lawyer. As with Sophie’s Choice I think part of the reason I find this so hard to handle is that it does happen. People get sentenced to death, like, a lot. I’m not going to start talking about why capital punishment is backwards and wrong but y’know…it is. The idea that your death could be decided in such a way is one that frightens me more than I can say.
So Selma is hung. But first she faints to the ground sobbing in fear so is forcibly strapped upwards. I didn’t know they did that. How awful. But of course they have a system…they would need one. Then when the hood is placed on her head she screams that she can’t breathe.
This is what disturbed me most of all. In the last moments of your life, knowing your death was coming, would you complain that you were unable to breath? Yes. Probably. How could you prepare yourself for that moment? How could you accept and understand that there would be no words that could change or stop this? How can people be brave? Selma has made her choice but when it comes to the moment of her death she can’t believe it is really happening to her. Then she screams for her son. By this point I was ready to swap places with her, such was the agony of watching this play out…The intensity was brutal.
This is where all that dogme style stuff kind of works because this scene, despite the asinine plot and the tap dancing earlier, feels very very real. The grainy camera, the lack of fancy shots…It does not feel like you are watching fiction. Bjork’s performance is devastating and the way she is strapped down, the cold, quiet space, the stark contrast between her stricken friends and the hardened professionals who do it by the book, it all feels like a real execution…Until she sings of course but because I don’t think they’d let you do that in the real life…Or maybe they would If it was a good tune:
Selma, having learned that Gene will grow up seeing it all, calms down and sings about this not being the last song-But before she finishes: Wham. Fuck. Over. I’m left with nail marks in my face and pain in my weakened heart. I am not kidding. My face hurt as the credits rolled because I had actually clawed at my own cheeks without realising. Bjork made me bleed. That is something I have in common with a couple of reporters and Von Trier and I assume the pixies that violate her nightmares with threats to evict her from her own brain.
So yes, Bjork even beats Meryl to my prize of ‘most disturbing acting performance in the last 10 minutes of a film ever’ That’s better than the Cannes Film Festival best actress prize right?
I hope she is grapefruit grateful wherever she is.
Tomorrow…A family drama with a title that sounds like a porno breaks my concentration…#3