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Dancer in the Dark: Lars von Trier and the Golden Heart

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier isn’t very secretive about his deep criticism of the United States of America. He made Dancer in the Dark, the third part of his ‘Golden Heart’ trilogy, in 2000, and the film served, in many ways, as a precursor to the ‘USA: Land of Opportunity’ trilogy that he began after being criticised by American filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival when he went to showcase Dancer in the Dark-he was told that he had no right to make a film about the United States without actually visiting the country.[1]

Von Trier uses the protagonist Selma Jezkova, a Czech immigrant, to enter into the discourse of the construction of America as the land of possibility. Selma moves to America from Czechoslovakia because in America there is technology that can cure her son’s poor eyesight that he has inherited from her. She confesses that she knew he would get the disease that would escalate to total blindness, but she had him nevertheless. Her aim then, in moving to the United States, becomes an attempt at expiation of the guilt. The biting irony lies in this very guilt, because as the film progresses, we see that Selma is among the few that has no reason to be guilty, hers is the golden heart.

“More than anything, there are more images in evil. Evil is based far more on the visual, whereas good has no good images at all.”[2]

media_stl_bjo_den.jpgVon Trier’s attack on America is methodical and whole- it is the system that tramples this golden heart. The individual, the family, the professional set-up, or the justice system-every step of society seems either helplessly or consciously embedded in deceit. Bill and Linda are Selma’s landlords (they own the land on which she has her trailer) and friends. Though Linda thinks that Bill has great inherited wealth, he is actually in great debt and doesn’t have the courage to tell her about this. He tells Selma that Linda is a compulsive spender and he can’t do anything to stop her. Caught desperately in the consumer culture, Bill decides to steal from Selma the two thousand odd dollars she has saved up over the years for her son Gene’s eye operation. Von Trier invests a great deal of thought in Bill’s character-though he is the reason for Selma’s tragedy, we see his compulsions as well. The scene where Selma finally kills him, the struggle gets transferred from the actual physical struggle between him and her to Bill’s emotional struggle between the guilt of stealing and the somewhat involuntary response of taking advantage of Selma’s blindness.

Samuel, the director of The Sound of Music production that Selma is a part of, is a more directly deceitful character, more meticulous and cunning in the way he helps the police capture Selma.

“My films have become highly moral recently.”

But individuals aside, von Trier’s most poignant attack in the film is for the American justice system. Almost every one who testifies against Selma is either lying or constructing a somewhat imagined version of the truth. For instance, Linda’s testimony is partly what she was lead to believe, but was part exaggeration to direct sympathy towards Bill. As a result of her build up, the all-American jury is most-likely to see it as an attack of the outsider on the American victim. The prosecuting lawyer spells this out, he says, “She didn’t show the pity she is now expecting from us…After all that this country gave her, this is how she repays us.” What is interesting and probably the sharpest comment against the farcical proceedings is that the Prosecution is not able to tell the difference between the real and imagined, the lawyer takes Selma’s statement that her father is the Czech tap-dancer Oldrich Novy seriously, and he summons him to court to testify against her. The reflection on a justice system that can’t tell the real from the imaginary is complete. Selma isn’t really the one who appears blind. Conspicuously, we see the prosecution build a case against her for a good half hour, and we don’t hear the defense at all. Even the lawyer Catherine hires doesn’t get a chance to defend her. So effectively, Selma doesn’t get a defense.

“Regarding the rule about colour, that one was for me, because I have always felt it difficult to accept the way a colour film looks. I have always spent a lot of energy changing it one way or other, so I could bear looking at it, and therefore it was a wonderful rule for me.”

The thing we notice first about Dancer in the Dark is its curious technique, specifically, the camera work and the use of the musical form.

Sudden shifts in appearance telling the real world from Selma’s imagination are made evident with the help of lighting and the jerky movement from one shot to the next. Privy to the shift from real to the imaginary, we know that switching to the mode of the musical is her way of dealing with a situation she has no control over in real life. And surprisingly enough, we need the shift as much as she does- it becomes our breather. The level of empathy is completed with the hand-held camera which gives a documentary-like feel to the film, allowing it a kind of truth claim.

“The problem about a musical is that it’s a little hard to swallow that suddenly they’re like dum-dee-dee-dum-dum this is always a little difficult.”

The film begins with Selma rehearsing for a Broadway musical – The Sound of Music, where she is to play the role of Maria. Von Trier’s use of The Sound of Music establishes Dancer in the Dark’s claim to the genre of the musical, simultaneously marking the differences between the two. The Sound of Music becomes the traditional musical as opposed to the more experimental musical that is Dancer in the Dark. With the parallel drawn between the two, a part of us expects a similar, bitter-sweet end like in The Sound of Music, and therefore, the end here is that much more striking.

Von Trier accepts the musical’s escapist potential and uses it to describe just that…the need to avoid reality. Yet, in the film neither the protagonist nor the viewer is spared any trauma. Von Trier uses The Sound of Music as a stepping stone, only to move ahead and redefine the musical. While Selma uses this form to run away from reality, she is brought back each time and the harshness of the reality hasn’t gone or reduced. Once again, this is used most effectively in the end when she is hanged suddenly in the middle of a song titled ‘The next to last song’.

“Visible good easily becomes trite…”

Only here, it doesn’t.

Footnotes

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lars_von_Trier

[2] All quotes used as titles are statements made by Lars von Trier. They have been taken from the site: http://www.quotesandpoem.com/quotes/showquotes/author/lars-von-trier/

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