Remembering Dancer in the Dark

The last time I saw a Lars von Trier work in the theater it was the single most devastating experience I have had with a film. My wife (then girlfriend) and I saw Dancer in the Dark in late 2000, and had to travel to see it since it had a limited theatrical run.

The movie stirred the sort of emotional tension to which most films can only remotely aspire. Bjork’s performance was so direct and full; a true lived-in reality for her. It was a performance for which she won best female performance at Cannes. It was also one she reported as being extremely difficult emotionally, uncomfortable intellectually, and nearly torturous overall. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean. Bjork has been widely quoted about her experience with von Trier and her feelings about the film, but one thing she has said sticks with me:  “Lars doesn’t consider it his responsibility to make sure people are psychologically stable after he’s worked with them in such an intense way.”

I expect he probably operates the same way in regards to his audience as well.

After the epic final scenes in Dancer in the Dark, so charged with emotion and a visceral sense of anger and hopelessness, Alison and I openly wept for minutes on end. Feeling the horror of what was to happen, our eyes streamed, but the silent tears were transformed to loud cries and groans as the credits rolled. Many others sat there in the dark as well; they were crushed and crying, too. I’ve never been as emotionally undone in public before. It was an unforgettable experience.

Kirsten Dunst in a still from Melancholia

So it is that I am filled with some trepidation… tonight I’ll be seeing von Trier’s Melancholia with friends. Will I find myself as torn, as moved? Will I have such an unforgettable reaction to this film as well? Great artworks are like this: so pungent, so evocative, that they literally precede themselves with palpable force.

An iconic, alchemical image from Melancholia

I’m looking forward to this experience.

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