A Review of Dancer in the Dark/A Commentary on the Dogme 95 mantra

For once, I have absolutely no clue how to approach this.  I am not sure how exactly to describe the movie.  I am not sure if it is a good movie.  I am not sure if it is a bad movie.  I am sure that it should not have won the Palm D’or.  I also know that it perfectly illustrates the limitations and problems with Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement.

The film follows Selma (Bjork, in her only film roll) as a woman in the 1960s who is slowly going blind.  She is working a difficult job at a factory to afford an operation for her son.  In order to help herself cope with life, she imagines herself in a musical using common objects to make the music.  She gets wrapped up in a murder but refuses to do anything to save herself, focusing solely on saving her son.

Let me just say right now that the Dogme 95 rules do not adapt themselves well to musicals.  It looks to real.  Musicals, since their inception, have been noted for their inherent “unreality.”  That is, they resemble no possible world that any real person could inhabit.  The best musicals have created worlds entirely unto themselves.

So why choose an almost documentary style approach for a musical.  I will not list the rules of Dogme 95 here, but some of them are necessary.  Basically, everything must be natural.  Even the songs must be recorded naturally.  For the ideal bombastic musical, this is a very poor approach.  I still do not understand the point of making it a musical. Wait, it barely even IS a musical.  The first song does not appear in the film until (I timed this) roughly forty minutes. In addition, the material presented is just far too powerful to only decided halfway through to incorporate songs.  Frankly, the songs get in the way of the narrative.    It just doesn’t work.  Really, the sole purpose to see the film is for Bjork’s performance.  She is absolutely wonderful and I wish she would do more films.  Plus, as much as I have criticized the music, Bjork is a wonderful pop artist and the songs are expertly performed.

Are you getting tired of me just using meaningless adjectives to describe the film?  Now you know how I feel.  I can recognize the film as very powerful and understand why the Cannes jury fell for it.  But this doesn’t feel like an artist wowing a doubting crowd with a master work.  It feels like a carnival ring master wowing people with a spectacle.  Sure, it SOUNDS fantastic.  But no, it is not.  It is ultimately shallow and meaningless.

Basically, the carnival analogy works well for the Dogme 95 movement.  It feels very much like a carnival, like you will feel you will see something you have never seen before.  Once again, the artificiality of it all comes through almost immediately.  All Dogme 95 films are too structured, and all end up looking the same.  Plus, the signatories barely follow their own rules.  Dancer in the Dark includes a murder, something Dogme 95 is not supposed to include.  I go spend days discussing the “infallible” rules.  I will close by saying, isn’t it up to the filmmakers to choose how to make their films?

I suppose that is the most notable problem with Dancer in the Dark.  It is too caught up in the rules, attempting to follow them so rigidly that it gets in the way of the story.  This could have been incredible.  The script is there, the performances are there.  The only thing missing is the director.  He is shackled to the wall of dogma, trying desperately to reach out but being constantly pulled back by his chain.  Maybe, one day, Lars Von Trier will finally break the chain.  Until then, watching his films will be nothing but a frustrating ordeal.

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