Light & 'Dark'

In Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark," the Icelandic singer and composer Bjork gives what may be the most wrenching performance ever given by someone who has no interest in being an actor. It is fitting that when we first glimpse her character, a factory worker named Selma, she is rehearsing an amateur theatrical production of "The Sound of Music" in a working-class town in Washington state in 1963. Fitting because "Dancer in the Dark" unexpectedly turns into a musical itself--one that is the very antithesis of "The Sound of Music"--and because Bjork is herself an amateur in the best sense of the word.

The movie won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May. (It opens the New York Film Festival this Friday and will be in theaters Sept. 29.) But the film aroused violently conflicting passions in Cannes. It's a love it or hate it movie. For some of us, however, it's possible to love it and hate it.

There is little argument about Bjork. She deservedly won the best-actress award at Cannes, but a Purple Heart might have been more appropriate. "It was scary," said the 34-year-old about making the movie. The only way she knew how to play the part was to become Selma, and there hasn't been a heroine who has undergone such misery and humiliation since... well, since Emily Watson prostituted herself for God in von Trier's epic of female mortification, "Breaking the Waves."

The naive and selfless Selma, who is gradually going blind, works overtime in a backbreaking factory to save money for an operation that will spare her 12-year-old son from suffering the same fate. In a series of plot twists that might have made D. W. Griffith blush, she is robbed of her savings, put on trial for murder and sent to death row. The only glimmer of hope she finds are the extravagant musical numbers she stages in her mind--which transform her bleak prospects into Hollywood fantasy.

Bjork hurls herself into this role with the ferocity of a wounded animal and the tender puzzlement of a child who cannot fathom the world's dangers. She's performing without a net, working on raw, unfiltered feeling. You watch her with a mixture of awe and concern, almost wanting to avert your eyes from a performance so nakedly emotional.

In New York, Bjork Gudmundsdottir talks about making von Trier's movie with the pride and relief of someone who's survived hand-to-hand combat. "I think, when I look back on it, I slowly started to become her. My friends who came to visit when we were shooting were seriously concerned. They've never seen me like that. Because I'm the most energetic, happy, optimistic sort of person... I just became her. As far as I'm concerned, I killed a man that summer."

This petite woman in the red and white gingham dress is a far cry from Selma, though both talk with the same lilting, wonderfully odd Icelandic-British accent. A child of '60s parents, raised communally in Reykjavik, the intense, single-minded Bjork released her first album at age 11, achieved international success as the lead singer of the Sugarcubes, and even greater acclaim for her techno-inspired solo albums. Bjork has maintained a waifish, childlike aura that's overlaid with a finishing-school formality. She is certainly the only celebrity I've ever met who curtsies when she is introduced. And curtsies again when she says goodbye.

Her relationship with her equally intense Danish director was a kind of folie a deux. "We both jumped off a cliff and we didn't even think if we were going to survive," Bjork explains. "It was very hard-core." Rumors flew that they had fought like cats and dogs, that she walked off the set because he was brutalizing her emotionally. Bjork denies this. "I think the surrender to him was not a problem at all... I only walked off the set once, for two days, and that was for musical reasons." A perfectionist about her music, she was appalled when "they would take my songs and chop them up and f--k 'em up." Bjork didn't speak to von Trier for nine months, avoiding him even in Cannes until the moment they found themselves side by side on stage, trophies in hand. "When we met in Cannes I was Bjork again." And was convinced she never wanted to act again.

"Dancer" is like no other movie around. Shot in bleached-out video colors in rough, hand-held style, the film is at once aggressively modern and deliberately, melodramatically, old-fashioned. Bjork's music--soaring, oceanic, discordant--casts a lush spell. Catherine Deneuve is surprisingly convincing as Selma's protective best friend. The film holds you in its grip throughout, even when the improvised scenes have the awkward rhythms of acting exercises.

The power of "Dancer in the Dark" is undeniable. So is von Trier's talent. It's the way he uses his talent that makes me uneasy: there's an emotional sadism in von Trier--toward his martyred, mortified heroines as well as toward the audience--that leaves a queasy aftertaste. We are appalled and moved by the cruel fate that befalls Selma--but it's a fate, let us not forget, of von Trier's devising. To those who find the film a masterpiece, "Dancer in the Dark" plucks deep chords of humanity. To those of us who find it a kind of magnificent sham, it's the audience that's getting shamelessly plucked.