Dancer in the Dark

“Dancer in the Dark”
24 February 2001

Tonight I saw the most painful movie I’ve ever seen, in fact the only painful movie I’ve seen in my life. I was fidgeting and squirming, covering my eyes, shaking, and moaning during this horrible thing. A half dozen people left the theater during some of the worst parts. My wife nearly vomited. I still feel ill hours later.

There was nothing gruesome or frightening in “Dancer in the Dark.” It’s not a horror flick. And it’s not a poorly made movie exactly; it’s certainly powerful. Nor is it an ugly picture of humanity. Only one character does something mean in the story, and he does so out of the utmost desperation. Everyone else is kind, decent, and even heroic.

I’m going to give the story away, but I don’t think it matters. This is a tragedy, and that is clear from the start. The experience does not depend significantly on suspense. If you want to experience this awfulness, you will still be able to do so, I believe, after reading this.

The movie begins with shots that could be in a documentary: up-close views of unglamorous people doing trivial and seemingly unscripted things. The heroine’s love of musicals becomes a larger and larger part of the story, which then itself becomes a musical. The most realistic scenes are suddenly interrupted by her daydreams, in which everyone bursts into Broadwayish and (therefore) not very good show tunes.

As the realistic scenes become sadder and sadder through the movie, to the point of gut-wrenching sorrow, the sudden shifting to pseudo-cheerful singing manages to squeeze out additional sorrow in a surprisingly effective way. I found myself longing desperately for the singing to stop, and not because it was bad singing.

The heroine has immigrated from Czechoslovakia to Washington State in the 1960s. She has a hereditary disease that will make her blind within a year. She has known this all her life. She works overtime and extra jobs in order to save money for an operation for her son, who does not know that he has the same disease. She and her son live in a trailer rented from a couple that has befriended them.

The man is a police officer. He tells the heroine that his wife is spending more money than he has, that they will lose their house and he will lose her, but that he cannot bring himself to tell his wife they are in trouble and she needs to spend less. In the same conversation, the heroine tells him about her oncoming blindness. This sharing of secrets is perhaps the happiest scene in the story. They promise each other to tell no one.

As in Camus’ “The Misunderstanding,” the man fails to speak. He tells his wife nothing. Instead, he steals the money that his tenant is saving for her son’s operation. She tries to get it back from him, and they wrestle. His gun goes off, and he is hit. He begs her to kill him, and she ultimately does so.

On trial, she continues to keep his secret. Sentenced to death, she refuses to jeopardize her son’s operation in order to save her own life. She is hanged. The trial and jail cell and hanging scenes are sadder than any I’d seen before. And they are made incredibly sadder, odd as it may seem, when everyone breaks into an incongruous fit of choreographed singing and dancing.

The actors in this tragedy leap out of it for an interminable period of a few minutes and become the chorus — a disturbingly bemused and cheery chorus. Supposedly the ancient Greeks enjoyed this sort of thing. But enjoyment is not the word for it. Masochism is closer. The tragedy here rests on the justice system’s ignorance, prejudice, and lack of insight. It killed a woman who was falsely convicted. She did not do what the court thought she did. She could not freely explain this and be believed. She and everyone else involved were destroyed by a system fundamentally flawed. She refused to compromise her love for her son in order to better navigate the system.

But, in this movie, her bravery and love are overpowered by the injustice and blind barbaric destruction of a process carefully created with the best of intentions. The same may be said of any date involving dinner and this movie.