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It is often assumed that Lars von Trier, in formulating the Dogma 95 cinematic “vow of chastity,” was challenging the bloated, phony spectacles of Hollywood. No doubt, but he was also confronting his own tendencies. For the Danish director who issued a ban on tripods, artificial lighting, special effects, and genre pictures nonetheless has a taste for flashy visuals, lurid melodrama, and star turns. He even loves, we now discover, the movie musical.
Not that von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is merely a movie musical. It’s alienated, absurdist, postmodern, and all that; one of its essential effects involves the juxtaposition of oddball Icelandic post-rock chanteuse Björk against the treacly score of The Sound of Music, the jolliest musical ever made about fleeing the Nazis. Von Trier wants to be emotional and ironic at the same timean impossible mission the film somehow partially fulfills.
Bizarre as it often is, Dancer in the Dark is not without familiar references. First, of course, there’s The Sound of Music, which two amateur performers, childlike tragic Czech immigrant Selma (Björk) and her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), are rehearsing when the movie opens. There’s also Björk’s music, whose trademark blend of industrial beats and gushing strings is faithfully transposed to the drab Washington State factory where Selma and Kathy manufacture sinks. And then there’s the anachronistically melodramatic plot: Selma, who’s going blind, works doggedly to save money for an operation to prevent not her eventual sightlessness but her young son’s. When Selma’s neighbor and apparent friend, Bill (David Morse), steals her hard-earned cash because he can’t say no to his greedy wife, Selma and Bill fight and Bill is killed, leaving Selma to face a murder rap.
This flimsy, tear-jerking scenario is worthy of a silent movie, and Selma’s trial and eventual martyrdom suggest The Passion of Joan of Arc, the vivid 1928 film by Denmark’s first great director, Carl Theodor Dreyer. But von Trier himself has been here before. Selma is a holy fool and sacrificial victim, just like Emily Watson’s Bess in Breaking the Waves. The movie also revisits the anti-Americanism of Zentropa, the director’s U.S. breakthrough. Like that film, Dancer is located safely in the past (1964), but it clearly counts on the pan-European appeal of depicting the United Statesa country the director has never visitedas simultaneously naive, arrogant, and brutal. (Is Selma named for Selma, Ala.? Von Trier, who boasts of having Communist parents, probably grew up on tales of American racial injustice.)
Von Trier has said that the film is set in the United States because movie musicals are “an American thing,” although Deneuve made celebrated musicals in France and the dark, ironic musicals that presage Dancer were invented in Britain by Dennis Potter. (In addition, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman has suggested that the movie resembles a Soviet musical more than an American one.) The director has also called his film a serious indictment of American capital punishment, but that’s equally dubious. Shot mostly in Sweden and featuring mostly Europeans in the supporting rolesamong them Peter Stormare, Udo Kier, and Breaking the Waves’ Stellan Skarsgårdthe movie seems to have very little to do with the United States in the ’60s or any other time. But then The Sound of Music is hardly an accurate portrait of Austria in the ’30s.
Dancer looks like what you’d expect of a semi-Dogmatic musical, which is to say harsh and washed-out. Like Breaking the Waves, the movie was filmed by Robby Müller mostly with a handheld camera and natural light, but von Trier bent his own rules to make the song-and-dance sequences. Rendered in richer huesreflecting the brightness of Selma’s musical-fueled dreamsthese numbers were shot with 100 fixed-position digital-video cameras and then pieced together. The resulting scenes feature rapid cutting and frequent changes of viewpoint, so they resemble a mix of MTV, Singin’ in the Rain, and the director’s editing-room meltdown, The Idiots.
That film is actually the only one von Trier has made in accordance with his own code. Dancer flouts Dogma taboos by featuring a gun and a musical score, as well as by being a genre picture. Yet there is a sense in which the movie meets the director’s description of it as an “almost-documentary.” This documentary is not about blindness, the drudgery of factory work, or even the American justice system, but about Björk herself. Although the singer seems in part a reprise of Bess, she’s also the real thing, not a trained actress playing a role. Von Trier has taken his obsession with the credulous female casualty to its ultimate expressionby actually victimizing his star. Björk’s plight is far more disturbing than Selma’s.
Or so it seems for most of this exasperating, overlong film. The final moments, however, almost transcend the many contrivances and cruelties. While on death row, Selma tells a sympathetic guard that “in a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens”another rule the director can gleefully break. He dances Selma to the gallows while black convicts join in her song, rocking the jailhouse in a frenzy of both radical chic and perverse romanticism. It’s impossible to say what force is stronger hereBjörk’s pathos or von Trier’s audacitybut even skeptics will likely find Dancer in the Dark’s climax strangely moving.
As recalled most recently by West Beirut, war can be a heady, liberating time for young people. That doesn’t quite explain, however, why Felice Schragenheimalready in tremendous danger as a Jew and a resistance member working under an assumed name at a Nazi newspaper in 1943 Berlinwould take the additional risk of trying to seduce Lilly Wust, the pretty wife of a German army officer. But she did, and she succeededwhich is wild enough to keep Aimée & Jaguar compelling despite conspicuous flaws.
Titled after the lovers’ pet names for each other, Aimée & Jaguar was adapted by director Max Färberböck, a German TV veteran, and co-writer Rona Munro from the book that revealed Schragenheim and Wust’s affair to a much-altered Germany in 1994. It’s a true story, although many details have been changed, not always for the good of a persuasive narrative. Felice (Maria Schrader) really did enthrall Lilly (Juliane Köhler), who staked her privileged statusas the mother of four boys, she was entitled to a large apartment and abundant ration couponson the love of a woman she knew (though not at first) was Jewish.
That this romance was transfiguring for Lilly is emphasized by opening and closing scenes of her as an old woman, still obsessed with the lover who was taken away by the Gestapo in August 1944, never to return. Unfortunately, this passion is less palpable when the two women are together. The movie is better at depicting the brash, frantic pleasures of Felice and her circle than the intimate feelings between the two women. Indeed, Färberböck almost seems less interested in the central love story than in reclaiming the familiar cinematic images of “decadent” Germany for the noble-hearted opposition: Felice and her friends blithely buy drugs, pose for stag photos, toy with the emotions of German soldiers, and exult in the newsunfortunately falseof Hitler’s assassination. This Berlin ain’t nothing but a cross-dressing, countercultural house party, although Felice’s hide-in-plain-sight antics in bars and nightclubs are balanced by a chilling scene in which she has to abandon a friend caught on the street without proper identification papers.
When the film opens, Felice is involved with Lilly’s nanny, Ilse (Johanna Wokalek), and is clearly a confirmed seducer. Lilly is promiscuous too, cheating regularly on the husband who returns sometimesrather too often to be plausiblefrom the Russian front. But Lilly is utterly bewitched by Felice, so much so that her reflexive anti-Semitism is discarded effortlessly when Felice discloses that she’s Jewish. Felice’s motivation is less clear. Is she truly in love with Lilly, or just with the idea of bedding an exemplar of Teutonic womanhood? Schrader’s Felice is edgy but ambiguous and ultimately seems unfinished. Death sanctifies its victims, which is fine with Aimée & Jaguar: The film is so taken with its real-life premise that it doesn’t worry much about the story’s deeper implications. CP