{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Defending Dancer in the Dark

Selma, a Czech emigrant works in a factory and is raising her son alone in America. She knows that she is going blind from a hereditary disease, but tries to hide it to work and save as much money that is required for her son's eye operation, who is also effected by the hereditary illness, but he does not know about it. Selma loves musicals because nothing bad ever happens in them, and slips into the musical-mode while working or while walking down to her little trailer.

As the film begins, the real and the imagined are mixed but not like a film of Buñuel, where you can not figure them out. They have their marked territory here as the color saturate with the song but as the film moves on, the things get blurred, Selma's world becomes more of a musical, her only respite from the downward spiral she is into. It may be called delusional but its all in the character. The movie remains sane.

The films looks artificial, but it is so by design not by laziness or lack of skill. The language that the people speak is English which is not the mother tongue of many of them, they are trying to make a living in an alien land. They live in America but they don't feel American. The film is melodramatic, and I can't understand why we are so afraid of melodrama, it like a handicapped child whom no one wants to own or hide under sheets when their high-brow guests come to dinner. Why such a contempt. This film can boast of some of the most honest melodramatic scenes, I have ever witnessed, give it to the Dogma rules, or to the director or to the lead actress Björk. And then follows our dear logic (in most cases 'logic of plot' or as they call it 'loopholes') to support the contempt, and we ask why only on 13th birthday of the boy, he should get operated, as if it is the point which Lars von Trier is trying to make. So what the point. One point may be to see the world from somebody else' point of view, which may be stupid or shallow but that is the world of her fantasy and escape from real. But we are so consumed by judging the character that we have no time to understand her (sounds cliché but its true at times).

And on a closer look, none of the character in the film is evil, they are all good, whether it is the shop floor supervisor or the jail attendant, may be except lawyers, which are shown as the part of the legal system they are working in. Even America is not ridiculed. They are all good because eventually they are part of a musical, Selma's own world, who kills Bill as an act of sympathy, even after his betrayal. The characters are shallow because they are seen from the musically blind eyes of Selma.

The choreographer, Vincent Paterson, wanted one of the final songs (107 steps) to be filmed more darkly, as he describes in one of the DVD specials, with more dramatic effects, nude prisoners caged pitilessly in small cells, but the final film doesn't has that, because it would have betrayed the whole point of musical, where nothing bad happens, at least in the eye of Selma. In that song, Selma moves ahead singing and meeting other prison inmates lovingly, because that what Selma is.

One of the chief motif of the film, which is criminally ignored by each critic, the point of keeping a secret. When Selma's neighbor Bill says Selma 'Mum is the word', it meant the pact of human morality, and none of them betrays it, none tells anybody else each others secret. They are both good in their own right. Bill did the evil act but it was not against the pact, but forced by his circumstances. He didn't betray Selma in that respect, but rather her good friends did it. Selma, who once says that she likes to play her little games when she has problems, was helped mercilessly by her friends (Cathy and Jeff) who didn't understand that 'Mum is the word'.

The best of all the allegations is about the banality of whole effort, to some it seems parody of American musicals, to others its pretentious and manipulative. Probably they confusing experimental simplicity with silliness, or rather their cinematic rules are too stringent to allow any experiment with cinema. I really fail to understand what is so banal in this film that is sufficient to curdle milk in 10 km radius. It may be confusing, or rather its difficult to mark its territory. Is it a melodrama or a musical or a fairy tale ? What ever it is, but it mixes and redefines all three with its experimental originality. All throughout the film there is a beautiful tussle between the a musical trying to survive in the hands of a sadistic director.

The last sequence is the testimonial of all this, where amidst all the people who are going to execute her, Selma smiles as she enters are imaginary world of music. Here is a piece where handheld realism is mixed with flights of fantasy. May be its Selma's naivety that results in her suffering, may be if she were more calculating and made her 'little games' bit brainy and without loopholes, she would have led a happier and longer life, but one can not blame Selma for musically messing her life. Eventually, Selma dies but in a way she was happy towards the end, as in a musical, and in this tale of goodness, naivety, their horrors and their need, a bigger picture emerges where beauty is crushed eventually on the podium of logic, which is neither as moving, rational, directly against capital punishment, exacting to certain cinematic standards, as certain critics wanted it to be.


Alok said...

All throughout the film there is a beautiful tussle between the a musical trying to survive in the hands of a sadistic director.

hmmm. that's an interesting way to look at it.

my problem is not with melodrama or artificiality or deliberate "ugliness" but rather all this to what end? Both at the level of form and content, what it tries to say is too simple and banal and as an spectator I felt slightly cheated after going through all of the film and finally concluding with a trite message. there just isn't enough complexity in the film... contrast it with breaking the waves which deals with some really complex questions about love and faith all done in a startlingly original style.

I acknowledge the skill and effort that has gone in making it and I think the negative crtics were not fair in dealing with it.

anurag said...

Alok, I think the end result of the film is not that important to judge a film, a good film might not always try to tie all the ends to a consciously insightful ending, but I see you point.

Also, I strongly think a film should take risks, so that cinematic art should evolve, irritate a few ppl, see safe avenues with doubt and vice versa. and I think Dancer in the Dark does that.

Alok said...

i am not talking of the end result... but I do need to understand the "purpose" of making the film. it may or may not be explicitly stated buy as a viewer I need to know and get a feeling of this when the film is over...

that was what I was talkin of.

Madhur said...

sometimes great films win the palme d'or, sometimes average films do, because they get the 'politics' right, i was quite happy when bjork died, only i wished she died earlier and without all that screaming.
btw have you seen Rosetta?

anurag said...

I have not seen Rosetta, but have seen 'The Son' by Dardenne brothers. I think both of them won palme d'or. I felt 'The Son' was good.

Are you saying Rosetta was one of those average film which got its politics right or otherwise ?