Established in Copenhagen during a 1995 conference of Danish directors (including Lars von Trier), the 'Dogme 95' movement was created to bring realism and character-driven drama back to cinema, a so-called 'rescue operation to counter certain tendencies in film today'. This cinematic 'vow of chastity' opposed the use of 'make-up, illusions, and dramaturgical predictability', such that the plot would be justified purely by the 'inner lives of the characters'. Since its inception, the principles of the Dogme 95 manifesto have been seen at work in Thomas Vinterberg's "Festen", as well as Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" and "The Idiots".
At first blush, von Trier's latest film "Dancer in the Dark", which won the coveted Palm D'or at Cannes 2000, has much in common with its fellow Dogme 95 films. Shot on-location in long takes done with handheld video cameras, using natural lighting and no hint of post-production work (including the addition of a musical score), "Dancer in the Dark" follows many of the rules originally outlined by Dogme 95 founding members von Trier and Vinterberg. However, about thirty minutes into the feature, the film takes a sharp left turn, jettisoning the 'vow of chastity' through the additions of an 'unrealistic' song-and-dance number, a pre-recorded musical score, the use of tripods, and some obvious post-production work. And what evolves is an intriguing synthesis of two juxtaposed filmmaking styles, the lavish Hollywood musical and the bare-bones style of Dogme 95, both of which combine to create one of the more memorable films of the year.
The story takes place in 1964 in a small town somewhere in Washington State. Selma (Icelandic singer Björk) is a Czechoslovakian immigrant who has recently come to the United States to start a new life with her teenage son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Together, they live in a trailer rented to them by Bill (David Morse, seen recently in "Proof of Life"), who belongs to the town's police force, and his wife Linda (Cara Seymour of "American Psycho"). Selma works in a local factory, where she has made friends with another European immigrant, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve of "Belle du Jour"), and attracted the amorous attention of simple-minded and shy Jeff (Peter Stormare of "Armageddon").
Despite her integration into the community, Selma's life is still fraught with difficulty. A hereditary condition is gradually making her go blind, which she has told no one about, including her son Gene, who shares the same affliction. However, Selma has made arrangements with a local eye doctor (Udo Kier of "End of Days") to have sight-saving surgery done on Gene, such that he will never go blind. In order to pay for such an operation, Selma must save every nickel and dime she makes from the factory.
The only place where Selma finds solace is music. Whether it be at an afternoon bijou featuring Fred Astaire, rehearsals for a local production of "The Sound of Music" (where she plays the coveted role of Maria), or simply listening to rhythmic noises around her, music is a temporary reprieve from the demands of her life. Unfortunately, her flights of fancy sometimes get the best of her, since she often ignores the demands of reality as she has daydreams about being the star of her very own Hollywood musical.
One night, during a heart-to-heart conversation, Bill reveals to Selma that he faces some serious financial difficulties, and that if he can't make his next mortgage payment, not only will his house will be repossessed, but his spendthrift wife will probably walk out on him. At the same time, Selma reveals the secret of her worsening eyesight, and how she is saving up for Gene's operation. Unfortunately, Bill sees Selma's savings as a stopgap solution to his financial difficulties, and his actions as a result of this sets off a calamitous chain reaction of events.
The easiest way to describe "Dancer in the Dark" would be to envision "Dead Man Walking" as a musical. Front and center is its unflinching condemnation of the death penalty, as it is a tragedy about how an innocent person can become the victim of circumstance, an illustration of the American Dream gone wrong. However, it is also a poignant examination of a mother's love and self-sacrifice for her son, and the depths that she will go to ensure that he has a better life. As the emotional center of such a tragic tale, Björk delivers a memorable and heartfelt performance, credibly conveying both the conviction and naivete that define Selma and propel the story forward to its mournful conclusion.
von Trier juxtaposes the dreariness of Selma's existence with the numerous musical set pieces that punctuate "Dancer in the Dark", which are the 'filters' through which she sees the world. At first, they are fanciful breaks from reality, a celebration of Selma's minor triumphs, but eventually, they evolve into the stolen moments that stand between Selma and complete despair, a haunting representation of her last shreds of dignity. For example, an earlier musical number features factory workers spontaneously bursting into song and dance, buoyed by the rhythmic pounding of machinery, while a later set-piece has the scribbles of a courtroom artist lead into a musical number during Selma's heart-breaking trial and conviction. While the songs and choreography are hardly Hollywood material (or even catchy for that matter), they are somehow appropriate given the simple aspirations of Selma's character.
Of course, what most filmgoers will notice most of all about the musical numbers is how they violate the tenets of the Dogme 95 manifesto. In contrast to the 'home video' documentary-like cinematography that dominates Selma's 'reality', the musical numbers create a world of 'illusion' with the use of traditionally-framed shots, artificial lighting, post-production, and of course, a pre-recorded soundtrack. While Dogme 95 purists may balk at the liberties that von Trier has taken, this combination of bare-bones filmmaking and Hollywood gloss winds up being an effective means of emphasizing the scope of the film's tragic resolution.
While the execution may run a little too extreme for the tastes of most moviegoers, and the musical numbers don't always work, "Dancer in the Dark" still remains a powerful and emotionally-resonant film. True to the underlying notion of the Dogme 95 movement, it is a story that is driven by the 'inner life' of its main character, a mother who is willing to sacrifice everything to ensure that her son has a better life. Yet with the incorporation of the larger-than-life elements from Hollywood musicals, von Trier has added an additional level of poignancy to an already tragic story.