I’ve watched a number of Lars Von Trier’s films over the years, and learned to recognize his basic formula: introduce characters and get you to care about them in the first act, so he can torture you by doing terrible, horrible things to them in the second. I used to fall for it, and for a while thought Von Trier was a great director, but lately, I’m prepared for it, and it doesn’t work as well when you see it coming.
“Dancer in the Dark” follows that formula so closely it’s almost funny. Bjork plays a poor, blind immigrant who works long hours in a machine factory and saves her money in a cookie tin. She is a cross between Tinkerbell and Mother Teresa, loving and loved by everybody who crosses her path while she sings and dances to the music she hears in the machines she works around. She wears coke bottle glasses but can hardly see even with them; she has a congenital disease that is robbing her of her sight, and she is saving all of her money so that her adolescent son can get a surgery that will save him from the same fate. Pollyanna has nothing on this gal.
And so of course terrible, awful things must start happening to her as soon as we cross the halfway point. Her neighbor, played by David Morse, steals her cookie tin money to fun his wife’s extravagant shopping trips. When she confronts him, a gun gets involved, he ends up dead (in the middle of a terrible song) and she goes to jail for the crime. And gets the death penalty. Von Trier draws all this out as painfully as he can, including an incredibly maudlin song on the way to the gallows in which Bjork counts every step.
A lot of people consider this a great movie, but to me, it all seemed terribly contrived and calculated for maximum tearjerking effect. There are a number of holes in the plot, places where Von Trier and the screenwriters have to bend over backwards to provide a rationale for the misery they’re intending. The ways Bjork’s “nobility” seal her fate that are so removed from reality as to be maudlin. I suppose if you’re caught up in the “emotion” of the movie, you don’t notice these things. But you can say that about a lot of truly terrible “tearjkers” that most attentive moviegoers look down their noses upon. And the music is terrible. I’ve never had much patience for Bjork and her pixie-in-dreamland persona (“I’m Icelandic! Magic is music!”) and this is exactly the kind of movie I’d expect from her. And I seem to have less and less patience for Lars Von Trier and his sadistic attempts at filmmaking.