Danish director Lars von Trier has a knack of doing outrageous things at the Cannes Film Festival, and yesterday's presentation of his latest film, Dancer In The Dark, was no exception.
Back in 1991, when Roman Polanski headed up the jury, von Trier first earned his bad-boy reputation when his film Europa won the Jury Prize, essentially the third-place finish at Cannes. Von Trier, sullenly accepting his prize, thanked "the midget [meaning the diminutive Polanski]and the rest of the jury."
In 1996, he returned with Breaking the Waves, the wildly inventive film shot in bleached-out colours and accompanied by elegiac pop songs about a simple young woman (Emily Watson) who, in a pact with God, gives herself up sexually to a boatload of sailors to save her paralyzed husband.
Two years ago, von Trier returned with The Idiots, a movie about an unusual commune where the members pretend to have mental disabilities. "A more repugnant piece of offensive drivel it would (thankfully) be hard to find," huffed English critic Alexander Walker in The Evening Standard, although others found the film highly disturbing, but powerful. The film, along with Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, were declared the first two offerings from a new kind of filmmaking, following the rules of a Danish directors' manifesto called Dogma 95. The Dogma plan for rejuvenating cinema insisted on no props or special effects or musical soundtrack -- just a story told with a handheld camera and natural lighting and settings.
Now, for Cannes 2000, comes von Trier's Dancer In The Dark, an entirely English-language movie starring the Icelandic singer Bjork in the main role and Catherine Deneuve, a veteran of films by directors such as Polanksi and Luis Bunuel, who are even stranger than von Trier. After an opening in the darkened theatre with only the movie's orchestral score playing, the audience was immersed in the latest von Trier hallucination.
Dancer In The Dark is a deliberate muddle of contradictions. On one level, it's a traditional film-weeper of the kind popular in the 1940s, with Bjork as Selma, a Czech immigrant to the United States, who cares for her adolescent son and works in a factory that makes metal sinks. Though Selma has friends -- including the soignée fellow factory worker (Catherine Deneuve) and her landlord neighbours, Sheriff Bill (David Morse) and his wife -- Selma also harbours a dreadful secret. She's rapidly growing blind. What's worse, the condition is hereditary, and she is desperately working extra hours to pay for a sight-saving operation for her son before she is forced to quit work.
To get through her long days, Selma nourishes a rich fantasy life, based on classic Hollywood musicals, in which she sees herself as a singing, dancing star, with the factory workers around her as her background chorus. The tunes -- with Bjork singing over a swarm of strings, over a mechanical factory rhythm -- usually use everyday words and conversational rhythms, reminiscent of films such as Jacques Demy's Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (in which Deneuve starred). Things go from miserable to worse in Selma's life when she is accused of murder, placed on death row and forced to make a choice: pay for a decent defence lawyer or get her kid the eye operation. Whether in the cellblock or in the midst of a retrial, there is always the danger that a new song-and-dance number might break out.
Among the movie's defenders, it is being seen as a wildly creative blend of genres -- the musical, the women's melodrama, but shot like a cinéma vérité documentary. The view among the film's detractors was that it was a kitschy gimmick, that the repetitive sequences, muddy sound recording and plot absurdities couldn't all be called virtues. The film was brilliant in patches, perhaps, but not fundamentally good. The debate raged in the hallways over to the press-conference room, and Dancer In The Dark was the most avidly attended of the festival so far. Up on the panel, there were two surprises: that Bjork was not there and that von Trier, who is usually press-shy, was there. Looking impish and pink-cheeked, with his short-cropped hair standing on end and wearing a plain white T-shirt, he took his place at the end of the panel next to the icon of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve, in sunglasses, pantsuit and perfect blond coif.
Bjork, von Trier said, was his first choice for the role, simply because he had seen her in a music video, promptly contacted her and asked her to star in the film. Asked if he enjoyed the creative collaboration with her, von Trier didn't offer the usual niceties.
"It was terrible. The fact is -- what can I say? -- Bjork is not an actor, which was a surprise to me because she seemed so professional. And that is what is so good about the thing, is that she's not acting anything in this film, she is feeling it. Which is incredible, but hard on her and hard on everyone."
Indeed, stories in the Danish press recently said that Bjork bit a hole in von Trier's shirt, went absent without leave and, at one point, von Trier broke two video monitors in frustration. When asked about rumours of tensions on the set, the regal Deneuve took the microphone to reprimand the questioner like a stern French mother.
"As for the tension on the set, I think it's very perverse this morning in front of the international press, with a very special film, to pay attention to something that is not even part of the film, but behind the film. . . . No film goes without patience, without difficulty, without quarrels, without crying some time.
"Bjork is a wonderful person but, as Lars said, she wasn't really an actress and she was really feeling this part and sometimes she was in so much pain she couldn't recover from one day to the next. . . . It's all part of what makes a film."
She let von Trier defend himself when it came to the question of his enthusiasm for women victims in his films. Von Trier stumbled for a moment as he tried to answer, and finally said: "Well, I'm sorry. It's not my purpose. These women are strong women. They are sacrificing themselves, it's true, but that's not my point. I don't believe that people should sacrifice themselves."
Earlier in the week, the trade press reported that von Trier's next movie would be a porn film, adhering to the rules of Dogma 95. Asked if the current cast would be working with him, von Trier, laughed and agreed: "Yes, everyone up here will be in it."
"And I'll be writing a few scenes as well," added Deneuve.
"Yes, because you have more experience than I do," suggested von Trier.
"I'm sure I do," responded the unflappable Deneuve, who proved that she, at least, was incapable of being shocked by Lars von Trier.