[This two-film review was originally titled “Portraits of Suffering.”]

High-Risk Heroines

Dancer in the Dark is only playing at arthouse theatres in the U.S. and will quickly disappear, unless the Oscars recognize Bjork’s performance, as they did for Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves a few years back. But both films will be talked about and written about among film critics and avid moviegoers for decades to come.

I’ll be right there, most likely, continuing to discuss them. Both films impressed me very much. And both troubled me very much.

First, let me join the chorus that praises Bjork for her marvelous performance in Dancer in the Dark. Few big screen performances have ever compelled my attention and convinced me so completely. And kudos as well to her supporting cast. David Morse is intense and fearsome as the policeman. Peter Stormare is funny and sympathetic as the simple, affectionate Jeff.

Guiding this talented cast, director Lars Von Trier shows again that he is a genius of employing digital cameras in order to bring the audience up close into the scenes, so that they are so immediate it is hard to look away. And then he edits them with energy and brilliance.

But there is a more important issue to discuss than the film’s technical ingenuity.

Powerful arguments have been made that Dancer in the Dark is a great film. And powerful arguments have been made that it is reprehensible. It is a similar development to what followed Breaking the Waves, Lars Von Trier’s other film about a suffering woman. No doubt the debate will go on and on, and you are likely to disagree with my view. It’s a difficult issue.

Yes, unarguably these films provoke powerful emotions from audiences. But are these films works of profound, lasting art? Or are they merely demonstrations of emotional manipulation?

I will admit that I was moved to tears by Dancer in the Dark, just as I was similarly moved by Breaking the Waves. But a few hours after leaving the theatre, I realized that I was not thinking much about the story the movie told. I was thinking about how awful it made me feel, how the director had achieved such a visceral response in his audience, and how effectively the actors had done their jobs. I was also thinking about similarities between the two heroines.

Lars Von Trier is very interested in simple-minded, good people. Like a great painter, he seems to be working on a series, like Van Gogh with the sunflowers… different angles on a similar theme.   That theme could be described like this: The oppression of the simple and the innocent by the powerful and controlling. It is a universal theme, and surely one worth examining.

Naturally, we find some affection for these characters. Like Forrest Gump, Emily Watson’s Bess and Bjork’s Selma are admirable for their goodness, even if it does come from naiveté. And, like Gump, they win our pity for their unfortunate mental shortcomings. Thus, we are set up to feel for them when bad things happen to them. And we marvel when they smile in the face of trials, because we could never do that. Their childlikeness is something to learn from. Even Jesus emphasized that to endure life’s trials we needed to come “as a child” in faith.

The Trials of Bess in Breaking the Waves

In Breaking the Waves, the central character, Bess (Emily Watson) is a few cards short of a full deck. Her love for her husband Jan is so obsessive that she literally will, and does, do anything and everything for him. Jan goes off for a long time to work on an oil rig. Bess misses him so much that she prays God will send Jan home. In a tragic accident, Jan ends up back home in the hospital. Is God answering her prayer with anger and cruetly? Or is this merely how she interprets things? It is unclear.

It gets worse. Suffering delusions, Jan starts speaking in ways that show he is not himself. While in this state, he asks Bess to go and prostitute herself with other men. It will make him happy. The whole situation seems rigged to punish Bess’s loving heart. Naive to the point of being mentally handicapped, Bess is incapable of reasoning that this is unfair. Although fearful, she does as he asks… because she loves him.

For the next hour and a half, the audience is forced to watch this girlish, cherubic, funny young woman pressured into sexual misbehavior with other men. To make matters even worse, her constant conversations with God bring her no mercy, at least not until the audience is nauseous with watching her “sacrifices.”

When the bells ring out at the end of that film, some audience members hear a note of grace and mercy; surely, that is what the bells represent. But are they merely a flourish of Bess’s delusion? Or do they suggest some kind of redemption?

Breaking the Waves won big honors at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to critical acclaim around the world. Von Trier worked on a television series and another movie, and then came Dancer in the Dark.

The Trials of Dancer in the Dark‘s Dancing Girl

In Dancer in the Dark, Von Trier introduces Selma, a kind, gentle, imaginative woman who works in a factory and is losing her eyesight. First, we like her for her sprightly personality; second, we like her for her impressive daydreaming, fantasies in which her world turns into a gung-ho musical.  When we’re in her head, we have a grand time, singing, dancing, dazzled by the music. So what if she slightly confuses her dreams and her real world? Like Bess, she’s adorable, delightful, and engaging.

And she is played with astonishing energy by Bjork (first-time actress, full-time rock singer). Bjork is so convincing, we feel as though we are watching a candid-camera documentary. (This same effect was achieved, just as powerfully, in Breaking the Waves.)

Soon, the unbearably cruel “real world” comes crashing in. Selma is failing at her job as her eyesight dims. She will have to drop out of the town production of The Sound of Music, even though rehearsals are well underway. This is bad.

It gets worse. Her son, whom she loves dearly, is destined to lose his eyesight as well if Selma doesn’t raise enough money for his operation. The two of them live in poverty in a trailer that sits in their landlord’s backyard. When it’s time to pay the rent, Selma is always on time, in spite of what is costs her; she doesn’t even have enough money to buy her son a birthday present.

It gets far worse even than that. Someone is trying to get at what money Selma has been able to collect for the operation. Before you know it, there has been a struggle, and Selma is responsible for killing somebody in self defense. Now the law is after her. With her eyesight failing completely, she is plunging headlong into a flight, a nightmarish courtroom drama, and a far more harrowing conclusion than any other you will see in theatres this year.

Making People Cry… and Cry…

Many will defend Dancer in the Dark, saying they were moved by Selma and her sacrifice. Many were moved by the martyrdom of Bess in Breaking the Waves as well. Some will poo-poo the holes in the plot and compare Lars Von Trier’s movies to opera, a work of pure emotion.

I won’t argue. I was devastated by these films. The actors were all superb. The camerawork was innovative and engaging. The stories portrayed definite good and definite evil, and glorified good in the end (at least by saying that virtue is honorable). Plot holes didn’t bother me much, as plot didn’t seem to be the focus.

What bothers me, in both films, is this:  It is the easiest thing in the world to do… move people by destroying something beautiful.

Recently I was flipping through various TV channels and stopped, shocked to the edge of my seat, by ESPN. The sports channel was showing a replay of a baseball moment, where a pitcher threw a pitch and his arm bone snapped. Ouch. I nearly became sick seeing it. But then, something very strange happened. The program showed it again, in slow motion. And again. And again, from other angles. Close-ups on the man’s face as he cried out in agony. And again. I couldn’t bear it. But I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t change the channel. They had me, hook, line, and sinker. They knew I would keep watching, desperate for them to give me relief, an answer. They knew I would wait until I saw why they were doing this to me.

Suffering sells. Programs are on the increase that merely string together footage of terrible accidents. Often, when a real-life tragedy occurs, you can watch the prime-time news programs trying to outdo each other with raw, emotional broadcasts about the damage done. A student shoots people at a school. Right away, networks air hour-long programs featuring the family members of the victims as they weep for the camera and cry “Why? Why? Why?” Soon, prime time specials feature interviews with relatives and friends, lasting just long enough to show them breaking down once again. These programs never fail to move me, as it is so easy to feel sorry for victims and to wish you could help them. But there is also that bitter taste left in the mouth, because the networks are putting this show on the air to get ratings.

In short, what these news shows provide is emotional pornography: Gratuitous emotion, removed from its appropriate context, robbed of respect and meaning, just as pornography accentuates carnal sex outside of a meaningful, beautiful context. There is no respect shown for these people and the importance of private moments in traumatic circumstances. The reporters use the grief of the victims for their own gain. Did we really need to see all this misery? Do the directors think we are so insensitive that we need to be shown tears in order to shed any?

That is the feeling I get after Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. There has not been enough storytelling. There has not been enough interest in what good comes of these sacrifices.  There has been instead a powerful man building something we like and then slowly, painstakingly, destroying it before our eyes.

The Pain, the Whole Pain, and Nothing But the Pain

Lars Von Trier knows his audiences will be moved by graphic suffering. Especially if it’s a woman that is suffering. Especially if that woman is naive, and doesn’t understand what is about to happen to her. The camerawork has that “home-movie”quality, which gives us this unnerving feeling that, hey, shouldn’t that cameraman put down the camera and HELP THIS WOMAN? Like the woman alone in the house in a horror movie, she has our full attention, because WE know what terrible things might happen, but she doesn’t.

Suffering works. That’s why even a non-religious person may weep at a Passion Play. We weep when a person suffers unjustly. But the Passion Play offers more than this: it offers stories of that person loving others, doing good, speaking truth, etc. And then there is resurrection. Relief. Hope. Meaning.

Yes, there is evidence that God honors righteousness at the end of  Breaking the Waves. But regardless of whether God’s mercy on Bess moves you at the end of the film, ask yourself: Has Lars Von Trier shown mercy to you? What is the purpose of showing the audience so much of Bess’s suffering? Does he really think we’ll miss the point? Could he not have come to the same conclusions about Bess’s goodness without subjecting the audience to so much of her humiliation?

In Dancer in the Dark, Von Trier shows more restraint, although the final half hour is extremely difficult to stomach. It would have been a stronger film if he had fleshed out more of the supporting characters, filled in more of the gaps, instead of dwelling on the misery so much.

In my opinion, Von Trier goes much too far in Breaking the Waves. He takes advantage of his talents and uses them to drag us through the mud, so we come away reeling, unable to shake the images, unable to think. It is as though he does not trust us to think, so he must hammer the lessons home, like an abusive parent teaching his children with shouting and violence. He shies away from chapters that might fill in important gaps in the story, and focuses on the hours of doom.

(This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, Rosetta, is a fine example of communicating just as clearly the sufferings of a heroine while at the same time exercising restraint. I recommend you view that film if you want to compare and contrast the differing levels of restraint.)

Again, I want to emphasize that I do not think these stories are without merit. Christ-figure stories are important stories. They remind us of the importance of love even in the face of oppression, even “unto death.”  But I fear that if Lars Von Trier were to make a movie of the life of Christ, three-fourths of it would be the gory details of the crucifixion, and we would miss so many important chapters. I shudder to think what he would have put Forrest Gump through.

In Beth’s passion, we see her grinning at the wedding and murmuring to God, but most of all, we see her humiliation. In Selma’s Passion, the story is not much more than a setup. All we really know about her is that she can daydream very powerfully, and that she loves her son. There are glimmers of hope in the story, yes. Maybe Selma’s money will save her son after all. Maybe her sacrifice will be someday be understood. But we don’t get to see any of that, to learn what her sufferings bring about in the end. We only get to see her slide downward into darkness, until she is left groping for the fantasy-life that gives her some relief. As in Neil Labute’s Nurse Betty earlier this year, it seems the only way an endangered woman can cope with trials is to escape into a false world.

This false world does nothing to stop the encroaching doom, but it does provide the audience with a few moments of relief from the inevitable apocalypse. They’re like commercial breaks during the newscast after a bloody tragedy.

Maybe that’s what Von Trier is saying with these films. A prayer life like Bess’s in Breaking the Waves, or an obsession with musicals like Selma’s in Dancer in the Dark, or… in our case… movies themselves: these are the moments of delusion that we dearly love because they allow us to escape the hard reality of life. If that is what Von Trier is saying, again, what a lousy thing to do to an audience for two or three hours.

If these films continue to enjoy the kind of critical acclaim they are currently winning, imagine what might happen. If more and more aspiring directors are impressed by Von Trier and appreciate what these films do to audiences, we will have a lot of hours of suffering in theatres to look forward to.  Storytelling, subtlety… these make vital art. Pounding an audience emotionally to make them sit up and notice… that can do more damage than good.

Now, imagine what might happen if someone as talented as Von Trier wanted their audience to experience joy? Or enlightenment? Or laughter? Or healing?

What might moviegoing be like then?