Once one overcomes the powerful urge to ring up Mr. von Trier and introduce him to wild new concepts such as "tripod," "dolly," and "steadicam" (as well as "script" and "logic"), it becomes marginally possible to settle into his latest effort, a thudding and profoundly nonsensical tear-jerker set (rather arbitrarily) in an imaginary America (a country, word has it, that von Trier has never actually visited...but fair enough--odds are, George Lucas has never been to Naboo, either). It's 1962 in a small town in Washington State, and a symbol of feminine determination and innocence by the name of Selma (pop singer Björk, whose name, for the record, rhymes with "smirk," not "fork") has arrived from Czechoslovakia to starve pathetically with her hopeful 10-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Perhaps the lessons in Cockney dialect cost her a pretty penny (the chanteuse herself has commented that her accent is "pretty fucked"), or perhaps finding employment in the only sheet-metal shop in lumber country exhausted her resources, but for whatever reason, Selma and son are forced to squat in a little shack on the property of struggling policeman Bill (Dave Morse) and his spendthrift wife, Linda (Cara Seymour), who are basically a Ward-and-June unit with the denial showing. Oh yeah, and Selma is going blind.
When she's not risking life and limb banging out stainless-steel sinks, Selma focuses on her life's one true passion--senseless self-sacrifice. Oops, make that musicals--that's right, musicals--because "nothing dreadful ever happens" in them. (This peculiar opinion is shared by von Trier in the press notes. Do they not have access to Sondheim in Europe?) A creature of joy and light and wonder and rainbows trapped in an austere, oppressive environment, Selma lives for musicals, a passion she shares with her equally dialectically challenged friend and co-worker, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). When Selma isn't busily staving off the utterly unmotivated advances of local yokel Jeff (Peter Stormare), she and Kathy attend musicals at the local cinema, where, to the annoyance of other audience members who "paid good money" to get in, Kathy provides a running commentary on the imagery Selma's failing eyes can no longer see. In some of the very few plausible (and genuinely moving) dramatic sequences, Kathy also aids Selma in their rehearsals of an amateur production of The Sound of Music, in which the gibbering, thick-skulled simpleton portrays a very unlikely Maria.
The thrust of the drama--such that it is--comes from Selma's unhappy dilemma. She has grown comfortable with her encroaching blindness--a genetic disorder that has her tapping the railroad tracks with her foot to find her way home, or finger-testing a water glass to see if it's full--but she cannot accept a similar fate for Gene. "In Czechoslovakia, I saw a film," she explains to her neighbors, "and they were eating candy from a tin just like this, and I was thinking how wonderful it must be in the United States!" When Bill and Linda give her the container of Almond Roca, she uses it to conceal her paltry stash of cash, which she's been socking away to pay for Gene's operation--a vague situation she steadfastly refuses to explain to anyone, not even her son. Criticized for being a communist and browbeaten for being a bad mother (despite her affection for her bountiful new homeland, she takes no joy in her son receiving a shiny new bicycle), Selma sees her life become a sort of monomania, to work her fingers to the bone so that her son might see.
Of course, if this all worked out, we'd have soap opera melodrama but no movie, so von Trier has spiked the punch with ridiculous and volatile plot points. But to her credit, Björk holds the movie together, and while she's about as much of an actress as Bruce Willis is a pop star, her natural charisma and the overwhelming intensity of her emotions should blind a lot of viewers to the ludicrousness of the story and the intentionally rotten videography by veteran director of photography Robby Müller (known for his work with Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, and Wim Wenders). Truly, it is a crying shame that the musical segments in Dancer in the Dark were not preserved in Cinemascope and Technicolor, because they're not only the best parts of the movie (brilliantly choreographed by Vincent Patterson, who has helped Madonna and Michael Jackson get a groove on), they are, in both senses, moving pieces of art.