The trouble with critics is that they're so conventional

Ordinary filmgoers, their minds uncluttered by theories and tradition, can react innocently
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The Independent Online

What a contrast! Lars von Trier's latest film, Dancer in the Dark, had won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival and Björk, who has the main part, had received the best actress award, yet when it arrived in London two weeks ago, most critics hated it - hated it passionately. The film, they said, was like giving a kiss of life to a fish. It was tedious, banal, sensationally silly. In the opinion of one reviewer, Björk gave a simpering non-performance; it was, according to another, what you would get if you crossed a water sprite with a charlady. There was more in this vein: Björk sings and dances like a penguin on Prozac, she has the face of a troll, screen acting does not get much more dire than this, and so on.

What a contrast! Lars von Trier's latest film, Dancer in the Dark, had won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival and Björk, who has the main part, had received the best actress award, yet when it arrived in London two weeks ago, most critics hated it - hated it passionately. The film, they said, was like giving a kiss of life to a fish. It was tedious, banal, sensationally silly. In the opinion of one reviewer, Björk gave a simpering non-performance; it was, according to another, what you would get if you crossed a water sprite with a charlady. There was more in this vein: Björk sings and dances like a penguin on Prozac, she has the face of a troll, screen acting does not get much more dire than this, and so on.

However, I was entranced by Dancer in the Dark - actually more than caught up in it, I was deeply moved. My personal jury of one will probably vote it the best film of the year. So it was a good thing that I only read the notices properly after I had seen the film. The critics are instructive, but I don't usually study reviews before I go to the cinema. I just read them rapidly, ignoring any detail, seeking only to discover the conclusion - worth seeing, or not. I like new films to come as pretty much a complete surprise to me. That Dancer in the Dark had done well at Cannes was sufficient reason for going.

It turns out to be a work which is probably more shocking to the experts than to ordinary members of the public. For the conventions which Lars von Trier breaks in such profusion are film conventions. As with any art, the majority of critics find this hard to take. As much as actors and directors, they are professionals who have grown up with a particular way of doing things, and the conventionally-minded among them do not like to see challenges to what they take to be the eternal verities. Ordinary film-goers, their minds uncluttered by theories and tradition, can react innocently.

The film concerns a poor Czech immigrant in the United States, Selma, a single mother, who is going blind. She believes it is a hereditary condition and so she works every hour she can to build up sufficient savings to pay for an operation on her young son's eyes. She also loves musicals; her only relaxation is attending a drama class where The Sound of Music is being rehearsed. Thelma is living on the property of a policeman and his wife, who themselves have money troubles so serious that the policeman steals Thelma's hoard of cash. But when she grabs it back, she finds herself accused of stealing from him. In the ensuing fracas, she kills him, and then she is arrested, convicted and executed by hanging.

Perhaps the main convention that von Trier breaks is plausibility. At first glance, he contrives to render the narrative quite improbable. He wilfully ignores obvious inconsistencies. At any moment, Thelma could halt the relentless wheel of events leading to her death, yet she makes no attempt to do so. Moreover, the film switches abruptly and frequently between one genre - melodrama - and another - the musical. And the contrast is even starker than it need be, for there is no background music at all in the melodrama sections.

If this wasn't enough, the film is also shot with hand-held camera, imparting a jumpiness which can be disorientating. There is also the casting. Catherine Deneuve plays a factory worker in 1950s America, far from her usual roles as a sleek, worldly-wise participant in dramas of passion and deceit. And, worst of all, Björk is not even an actress. She feels the part rather than plays it. She is an Icelandic pop singer who has declared that she will never act again. Indeed, I suspect it is this which has most outraged the critics. Not a proper actress!

I responded strongly to Dancer in the Dark because it is, in effect, the life of a secular saint. Thelma has only one object - improving her son's sight. Preserving her own life isn't an issue. Once she has retrieved her savings and placed them into the hand of an eye surgeon, she has no concern for herself. If the judicial process unjustly finds her guilty and condemns her to death, let it be. She has no strength left to fight. In her daily life, she always tries to do the right thing. She won't accept charity. If she gives her word, she keeps it, however great the cost. She has only one diversion -musicals - and in her imagination, as her sight deteriorates, she begins to translate everyday sounds into songs and dances.

For me, she is convincing, with her unexpected smiles and matter-of-fact determination. Von Trier shows us her goodness, her struggle, and her dreams. I have no idea whether this is what von Trier thought he was doing, or whether Björk saw this as the part she was playing, but that, in a miraculous way, is how it turns out.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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