Gut-Punch Theater: Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Having seen more than few of Lars Von Trier’s films now, I’ve become a devoted fan and eagerly anticipate news of upcoming projects (Nymphomaniac namely). If nothing else, he makes films unlike any other director and imbues a certain amount of flair to each one. None have been anything less than fascinating to watch, although some are more difficult to watch than others. Antichrist is a key example of a difficult film that, if anyone avoided due to edgy subject matter and shocking visuals, they would miss out on a slice of unique filmmaking. As Stan Brakhage taught us, an image is merely light reflecting off matter. It’s our own minds that assign meaning to the images.
Dancer in the Dark is a film less centered around stunning visuals, as have become trademarks of Von Trier’s recent work, though the visual style seen here is used for a specific purpose, but instead focus’ on character and story. I would categorize the film, if that’s possible, as the most realistic dramatic musical ever. I know the terms “musical” and “realistic” rarely collide as the very basis of musical numbers lie somewhere outside of reality, but that’s how I think of it. The musicals numbers are a variation of the reality presented here, and it works for this story perfectly. A touch of genius to the shoot a musical like this.
On the other hand, forget anything you know about musicals, including finger-snapping tunes and jaunty dance numbers, and remember this is a drama first and foremost. And I mean DRAMA. This man knows how to take the most innocent creature on the planet, a naive, nearly blind, single, immigrant mother, and rake her over the coals in every way possible way, thus stripping the audience of any semblance of hope and leaving us feeling as raw as a fresh wound. I can’t and won’t go into the plot for various reasons, but I swear to you, by the last five minutes of running time, I had tears streaming down my face. But they’re tears you’re not ashamed of, man or woman. The film engulfs you with a feeling of total and utter heart-break, like you yourself are sitting there helpless to stop the events of the film from happening. I really have never felt anything like that before in a film, like the title of this article, it’s a gut-punch and a total dismemberment of your soul.
That being said, I think this is a tremendous achievement in film. Truly brilliant and engaging. I’m a better person for having seen it.