In The Darkrnhy George McCartneyrnDetails, DetailsrnLike God and the Devil, films revealrnthemselves in the details. Pluck a scenernat random, examine it closely, and you’llrnbe able to forecast the rest of the movie’srnmerit with remarkable accuracy.rnTake director Lars von Trier’s Dancerrnin the Dark. It tells the tale of Selmarn(Bjork, the Icelandic singing star) who isrnsuffering from an eye disease that willrnleave her blind. She has emigrated fromrnCzechoslovakia to a small town in Washingtonrnat the end of the 1950’s, hoping tornretain the services of a local ophthalmologicalrnspecialist for her 11-year-old son,rnwho has inherited her affliction. She’srnsure he can be saved from her fate by arnHmely operation. (Wliy this procedurernshould work for him but not her is leftrnwholly unexplained, as is the nature ofrnthe disease itself) To pay for the operation,rnshe takes a job in a nearby factorv’,rnwhere she operates a metal-stampingrnmachine. Von Trier makes this seem arnterrifing mechanism through repeatedrnclose-ups of its piston-driven pressingrnblock slamming down onto the tin platesrnSelnia must place beneath it. Not able tornsee the machine as more than a blur, shernoperates it b’ touch. Again and again,rnthe block narrowlv misses her pink littlernhands as she tries to keep up with its everquickeningrnpace. Drama enough? Notrnat all. Von Trier wants something evenrnmore harrowing. When her landlordrnmakes noises about raising her rent, Selmarndecides to work the night shift, too,rnonly to discover that, as an after-hourrnworker, she’s expected to run two pressingrnmachines at far more rapid rates thanrnduring the day. This is just one in a chainrnof plot turns that make this film about asrnaesthetically honest as, say. The LittlernMatch Girl. Yet it won the Palme d’Or atrnCannes last vear, and many Americanrncritics liaxe fallen into line, hailing it as arntriumph of innovahve, hard-edged filmmaking.rnHow can this be? It’s a matter ofrnstyle and substance.rnDespite the surpa.ssing childishness ofrnhis stor), von Trier cidtivates a style guaranteedrnto win reverential approval from arncertain kind of fashionable reviewer. Inrnthis film and others, notably the execrablernBreakuig the Waves, he deliberate-rnDancer in the DarkrnProduced by AV-Fiind Norway,rnArte France Ginema,rnand the Danish Film InstituternDirected and written hy Lars von FrierrnDistributed by Fine Line FeaturesrnThe ContenderrnProduced by Battleground ProductionsrnDirected and written by Rod LuriernDistributed by DreamWorks DistributionrnBest in ShowrnProduced by Castle Rock EntertainmentrnDirected by Christopher GuestrnScreenplay by Christopher Guestrnand Eugene I £vyrnDistributed bv Warner Bros.rnIv forswears technical sophistication. js arnmember of the Danish Dogma school ofrncinema, he believes that serious, sociallyrnconscious films must eschew illusion andrnfakery. This means shooting with handheldrncameras in natural light and confiningrnaction as much as possible to real time.rnThe resulting faux-amatcur productionrnfairly shouts, “Look, ma, no tricker)’!” Butrnwithout trickery, cinema wouldn’t exist.rnFilms necessarilv begin with the illusionrnof motion achieved by running a strip ofrnsnapshots through a projector: That’s whyrnthey’re called “movies.”rnVon Trier’s aesthetic puritanism is atrnonce irritating and risible. He wouldrnhave us believe his moviemaking is morernhonest than high-tech studio productions.rnPresumably, technical cruditvrnguarantees dramatic authenticity. Butrnthis film’s unprofessional look is completelyrnfabricated. If s all too evident thatrnvon Trier has worked strenuously to keeprnhis camera jiggling, his editing a hodgepodgernof unmatched shots, and his focusrno])tional. His compositions routineh’ loprnoff actors’ heads and leave objects significantrnto the scene beyond tiie frame. Aspiringrnto absolute realism, von Trier hasrnonly succeeded in making a film that irritatinglyrnnever lets us forget we’re watchingrna movie.rnThe substance of the film is cenrnworse. In von Trier’s mind, 195(J’s Americarnis a place of soul-suffocating rigidity,rnvirulent anticommunism, addictive consumerism,rnand a general hankering to executerndie less fortunate. In some t|uarters,rnof course, this is consideredrnunvarnished realism.rnTo make his indichiient stick, von Trierrnrecklesslv piles one hilarious plot contrivancernupon another. Besides her w oesrnat the factory, Selma finds herself at thernmercy of her crazed landlord. Bill (DavidrnMorse, a fine actor who is wasted here).rnA policeman, Bill is married to a womanrnwho “spends and spends.” He never saysrnno, however, for fear of losing her. Thernevidence of her spending, by the way, isrnnowhere in sight; I can hardlv imagine arncouple living more plainly. But von Trierrnis convinced that Americans are capitalist-rndriven, compulsive consumers, andrnwe simply have to accept his word on it.rnTo sta’c off the financially ruinousrnconsequences of his wife’s invisible extravagance.rnBill does what any other coprnwould do: He chooses the most impoverishedrnwoman in his precinct, Selma, andrnsteals from her. After all, what other optionrn— legal or illegal — could this strapping,rnsix-foot-plus cop have? When Selmarndiscovers the theft, she confronts Billrnand, despite her elfin proportions, managesrnto kill him in the ensuing tussle.rnDuring the trial tiiat follows, the prosecutorrnseizes on her alien politics. “She saidrncommunism is better for human beings,”rnhe hisses to an alarmed jur. Despite vonrnTrier’s loudly avowed artlessness, he cleverlyrnmanages to punctuate diese scenesrnwith shots of a billowing American flag.rnHow sardonic!rnAs die noose of Selma’s fate tightens,rnshe retreats ever more frequenth’ into thernworld of her imagination, which isrnshaped by her love of musicals. .As she explains,rnnothing can go wrong in a musical.rnThis gives von Trier license to alternaternbetween “real” scenes shot in a drab,rnsepia tone and Selma’s briglitly lit innerrnvision of a world transformed by music.rnShe can sing and dance to the mechanicalrnrhythms of hissing, clattering factoryrnmachines or board freight trains filledrnwith ragged hoboes for a proletarianrnromp a la Bob Fosse. Shot in glowing,rnprimary-color vibrancy, these sequencesrnwould be qiute charming if thev weren’trnlANUARY 2001/55rnrnrn