Thursday, May 5, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Dancer in the Dark" is the Best (Non-American) Palme d'Or Winner

Scene from Dancer in the Dark
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Dheepan is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Dancer in the Dark is the best Non-US Palme d'Or winner.

In America, there's few barometers for film that hold as much weight as The Academy Awards. Regardless of what you think, the notion of winning an Oscar alters careers in such significant ways that it makes artists a piece of history, or at very least a trivia fact. To a large extent, the Cannes Film Festival is the equivalent of this on a global scale; choosing to recognize film from every corner of the world. It may be a film festival and thus doesn't necessarily highlight films from over a 12 month period, but there's plenty of prestige that comes with it. Films have had boosted reputations because of winning their Best Picture equivalent the Palme d'Or. Considering how little crossover there is between The Oscars and Cannes, it also makes for an interesting conversation about cinema as an art. In the past 15 years, there's only been three Palme d'Or winners nominated for Best Picture, but none have won. You'd have to go back to Marty in 1955 to have the crossover (with the only other one being The Lost Weekend).

With all of this said, I admit that I have a certain reverence for the Palme d'Or, even if I will admit to not even seeing half of them (worse chances if they're not American releases). Still, I become intrigued when I know that a film won and follow its marketing until its eventual release. With director Jacques Audiard (who also did the great Rust and Bone) having recently won for Dheepan, it made me think about what films that have won that I personally like. The challenge would initially be easy if you included everything. You'd have Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Pulp Fiction, and Barton Fink to name a sliver. It felt too easy. In fact, it would be more difficult to pinpoint one that wasn't made with American money. With this in mind, I am going to share what I feel is the best winner not made in America. I feel that it is a controversial pick, but it is one that I feel revolutionized a certain genre of film for the modern age.

In 2000, director Lars von Trier premiered Dancer in the Dark at Cannes. The musical starred Bjork as a blind woman who escaped her trouble through song. By this point, audiences knew what they thought of Bjork as a performer. She was eccentric, but her Icelandic voice was so specific that it would either aggravate or soothe. It makes sense then that she would team with von Trier for a musical which stripped away conventional orchestration and used music that often incorporated organic songs. If she began to sing in a workshop, the machines would become a percussive force that leads into optimistic song. Courtroom scenes would break out into song. For a film whose underlying music can be described as upbeat, the film managed to be far more subversive and intriguing underneath. After all, this is von Trier: a Danish filmmaker who has remained largely notorious for antagonizing interviewers and producing work that is often tough to watch, such as the later Cannes entry Antichrist - which had even more of a visceral reaction thanks to scenes involving genital mutilation.

The notion is simple: you either love or you hate von Trier. He is a bleak filmmaker at heart, choosing to indulge in depressing stories. It is likely why it makes sense then that he would tackle a musical like Dancer in the Dark. If forced to name a musical, one would be hard pressed to think of one with a negative trajectory. The music generally is positive and serves as the perfect form of escapism. In his film, von Trier perfectly adapts the fantasy by having Bjork's life be utterly miserable before diving into these stylized numbers that have a certain glamour and optimistic view to them. It digs underneath the viewers' skin the further things go, as even Bjork's voice sounds creaky and insecure with her mental state. Suddenly the magic of musicals becomes clear. Despite being downright bleak, the film deconstructs musicals in a way that shows their value as well as why they are generally silly. The only difference is that there's no Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire routine. It's just a blind woman trying to enjoy her life.

The truth is that it's such a hard recommendation because, like all von Trier films, it is not easy to watch if you are a "happy person." This is also hard especially if you're not the least bit impressed by Bjork's singing, which is stripped of the familiar productions that she would gain acclaim for during this period with her album "Post." These two divisive things together manage to capture a certain optimism among the more beaten side of life. However, it's a musical that ends with Bjork basically being cut off from her final song, drenched in tears, as her body hangs; lingering in front of the camera. Considering that the 90's saw his breakout Breaking the Waves where a devout wife faces severe punishment in Biblical fashion, people likely knew what to expect in 2000. Still, he has only become more aggressive in what makes him singular in vision, most recently creating a four hour epic called Nymphomaniac (which is about what you think it's about).

Beyond the story and casting, it may also be disorienting to viewers to be dropped into von Trier's aesthetic. Following his run of films in Dogme 95 that would attempt to make films as real and in the frame as possible, he began to blend it with the familiar fantastical elements that cinema has always had. The one thing that carried over was the naturalism and lack of shiny cinematography. Every shot is done with a handheld camera and the angles aren't always the most pleasing. In a way, Dancer in the Dark bridged his more rugged style with his more ambitious work that he currently thrives on. Still, the film feels very raw and the visuals take some getting used to, especially if you go into this expecting a straight up musical shot and directed in the familiar fashion.

Of course, the film was even too gruesome for Bjork, whose time with von Trier convinced her never to act again. However, the results definitely paid off with a certain immediate acclaim that won the Palme d'Or and is partially responsible for the resurgence of musical movies in that decade (the others being Moulin Rouge and Chicago). One could easily see why. There were few musicals as uncompromising before or since. It even got Bjork an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for "I've Seen it All." While the song is likely obscure to those who haven't seen the film, the outfit she wore to the ceremony is arguably among the most iconic not only of her career, but in red carpet history. It's hard to forget "the swan dress."

I do understand that it is difficult to pick just one Palme d'Or winner worthy of mention, and many are likely yelling about choosing Dancer in the Dark. I get it, von Trier is divisive and many don't get his aesthetic. Still, I think that his ambition produced something so authentic that it'll be hard for fans of musicals not to at least appreciate it structurally. It creates a vision so pure that it proves that not all stories have been done before. I am aware that I have maybe seen a dozen of the non-US winners on a generous day and likely have better to choose from. However, there's nothing wrong with going with my heart here. Cinema is subjective, and sometimes that means not being everyone's cup of tea. There's a lot of good films on the list, which is only a testament to its quality. I just hope that if I ever watch all of them, I will have a more confident answer to give in the future.

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