Wee Björk beats knuckle-headed George

Dancer in the Dark (15) | Lars von Trier, 139 mins O Brother, Where Art Thou? (12) | Joel Coen, 107 mins
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The Independent Culture

A French acquaintance of mine who saw it at Cannes admitted to having wept buckets. Another, British this time, told me he felt like vomiting, literally. Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, which opened this week and is guaranteed to monopolise, for a couple of months, that moveable feast of petits fours, the cocktail-party circuit, allows of no half-measures. If you don't like it, you can't stand it. The one thing no one will plausibly be able to claim is to have been disappointed by it, for that would imply that it had fallen short of certain preconceived expectations and, until one actually sees the film, one cannot know what to expect.

A French acquaintance of mine who saw it at Cannes admitted to having wept buckets. Another, British this time, told me he felt like vomiting, literally. Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, which opened this week and is guaranteed to monopolise, for a couple of months, that moveable feast of petits fours, the cocktail-party circuit, allows of no half-measures. If you don't like it, you can't stand it. The one thing no one will plausibly be able to claim is to have been disappointed by it, for that would imply that it had fallen short of certain preconceived expectations and, until one actually sees the film, one cannot know what to expect.

The dancer in the dark is single mother Selma (Björk, as if you weren't already aware), who toils away in a factory, day and occasional night, to pay for an operation that will prevent her son from succumbing to a genetically inherited eye disease. She is a dancer because she is blissfully in thrall to old black-and-white Hollywood musicals (a not-easily indulged taste in the American hinterland of the 1950s, which seems to be where and when the film is set) and in the dark because she is rapidly losing her sight. So rapidly that she has to have the plotlines of her beloved musicals spelt out to her by her co-chippie Kathy (and although it's undeniable that the much-derided Catherine Deneuve is ludicrous in this role, I feel bound to make the point that, if she is, it's only because we all know it's Catherine Deneuve, if you get what I mean).

As it starts, so it goes on. This film has no shame, no tact, no discretion. It not only stoops but grovels to conquer. It is, in the correct Latin etymology of the word, obscene, exposing everything a more subtly reticent artist would have elected to keep off-screen. Forget Pedro Almodóvar, forget Douglas Sirk. Not since the partnership of D W Griffith with a luminously demure Lillian Gish, innocent, virginal and perpetually ripe for abuse, has a director martyred his leading lady with such sadistic gusto. And I suspect that even the unsqueamish Griffith would have balked at von Trier's Death Row denouement, the jaw-dropping like of which I haven't seen since Michel Piccoli slit his own throat in mid-song in Jacques Demy's Une chambre en ville.

Dancer in the Dark is itself, like Demy's masterpiece, a musical. The blind can see in their dreams, and poor put-upon Selma (paradoxically, it's the physical frailty, the startlingly mousy wee-ness, of Björk, that turns out to be the film's principal strength) blots out the mounting horrors of her existence by closing her eyes and projecting herself into a series of faintly sinister musical numbers, reputedly shot by von Trier with a hundred cameras. These numbers are genuinely impressive - except, alas, for the music. I've always thought that "Björk" sounded like an Icelandic swear word ("Björk yüü!"); it certainly comes close to what I found myself muttering whenever she geared up for yet another of her whinily nasal ballads.

This has been, as it was meant to be, a negative review. And yet... The emotionalism of Dancer in the Dark is so unabashedly extreme, so unashamedly naked, it becomes almost abstract. Is it possible to admire the nerve of a film without admiring the film itself? It must be, since that's my position on this one. As for you, reader, you're on your own.

The hero of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, dating from the early 1940s, is a bankable director of undemanding farces, Ants in Your Pants of 1942 being the most recent, who acquires first a conscience then, in an uncontrollable itch to edify, the rights to a bestselling, high-minded novel. The novel's title, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is also that of the Coen brothers' latest comedy, which further resembles Sturges's in drawing inspiration from an unlikely literary source, not Gulliver's Travels but the Odyssey.

Set in the Depression era, in the depths of the rigorously segregated Deep South, it relates the picaresque exploits of three knuckle-headed convicts, played by George Clooney, John Turturro and someone called Tim Blake Jones (O Steve Buscemi, Where Art Thou?), who break loose from their chain gang and light out in feverish pursuit of a chimerical treasure. Although it raises the film's first laugh, the Odyssey reference isn't just a credit-title gag. John Goodman plays a Bible-thumping Cyclops, Clooney's faithless wife (Holly Hunter) is named Penny, presumably short for Penelope, and in a magical sequence the trio encounter an alluring bevy, as they used to say, of sexy Sirens.

There are several such hallucinatory moments - I especially cherished the scene in which a white-robed congregation, en route to a baptism, traverses an eerily mysterious forest - and what's best in the film is its creation of an Edenic South, gangrenous and lush, reminiscent of one of those zoologically indiscriminate Peaceable Kingdom tableaux in which lions lie down with lambs.

The trouble is that, although the Warner Bros movies of the 1930s by which the Coens have also been inspired, modest little thrillers with plots taken straight from the period's headlines and breadlines, were designed to be enjoyed (and can still be enjoyed) as taut, racy, fast-moving entertainments, they took their crusading ambitions deadly seriously and were even instrumental, in one or two celebrated cases, in getting the law changed. For the Coens, by contrast, everything is reduced to a giggle, even the eye-fetchingly choreographed Ku Klux Klan, with their glamorous cloaks, hoods and crucifixes. Yes, it's all frightfully postmodern, but there was a truly subversive dimension to Sullivan's Travels, not a hint of which survives in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Come to think of it, a better title would have been Ants in Your Pants of 2000.

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