Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful film in theory. A snide diatribe against capitalism and Hollywood filmmaking (which are, conveniently, the same thing) dolled up as a sincere musical melodrama and sent our way with the spurned kiss of the European auteur, the film is conceived in an admirable balance of hubris and humility. In exposition, however, Dancer in the Dark suffers gravely from von Trier's ingrained contrarian aesthetic and growing avant-garde laziness--when the film is not wantonly sadistic, it is simply sloppy. And while von Trier maintains his unique facility for the direction of small, crying women, his other tricks seem woefully inadequate to pull off the feat he sets out to accomplish.
To be sure, there are moments of brilliance. The intellectual rigor with which von Trier constructs--and deconstructs--the melodrama is painfully impressive. There is a scene halfway through where the blind protagonist Selma (played by Björk) is standing trial for the film's inevitable murder. In an impetuous fever of conceit, von Trier uses the form of the courtroom drama to cross-examine the very history of Hollywood filmmaking itself: Dancer in the Dark must stand trial for 100 years of melodrama, with its plot contrivances brought out as evidence of manipulative intent. The wheels begin turning, the whole layered machine starts shaking, and the entire court breaks into song and dance as we escape from one celluloid dream into another.
But just as you're about to applaud, the number collapses, ruining the effect. In fact, it is the cynical carelessness of the musical numbers that frustrate the film's potential. For all the bragging of the "100 digital cameras" used in the song-and-dance sequences, they come off as neither gracefully staged nor compellingly envisioned. In fact, the sincere charms of the musical genre he hopes to mock/emulate seem to elude von Trier, as if the gods of that gilded Hollywood form had seen into his heart and deemed it unfit to receive the teachings of Busby Berkeley and Gene Kelly.
Thankfully, the same gods looked deep into Björk's heart, and--let us be frank--what could they possibly find lacking? Where von Trier pulls lazily back from the challenge, Björk just fucking goes for it, ripping her heart out and holding it up in sacrifice--and I'm not even talking about her stunning acting. I'm talking about those seven songs during which, isolated from von Trier's misdirection, she makes a brilliant musical all on her own.
The numbers she contributes to von Trier's potluck of a film range from the lush, romantic soliloquy "Scatterheart," presented as Selma's post-murderous lullaby to her victim, to the expertly noir "107 Steps," a whirling cry haunted by the ghost of Bernard Herrmann. At the other extreme, "Cvalda" and "In the Musicals" dance with the energy of a cocktail party thrown by Esquivel for the cast of Singin' in the Rain. In only five short numbers, Björk manages to build a complete spine for the film--a spine that von Trier lacks.
And yet, this kaleidoscopic music is entirely her own. Its confluence of metallic noise, electronic pulses, orchestral horns, and virile percussion manages to update the patterns of classic Hollywood musicals and extend Björk's private obsessions into a new, pristine realm. In particular, the variations on a theme that bookend the film show how utterly Dancer in the Dark belongs to her. Lifting effortlessly upward, morbid and transfixed, overwhelmed by the very passion for sight that is supposed to underpin the film, these songs are the profound poetry von Trier cannot create.