The best films of Lars von Trier, a sadistic Danish jester, face up to their flaws and nastiness and hyper-self-consciousness unblinkingly. Their unashamedness becomes their virtue; and von Trier can be called one of the most interesting directors of his time because even if he's an asshole (and the evidence suggests this is so) he doesn't try to hide the fact. In an artist, dishonesty is a greater sin than villainy, and von Trier takes his adventures and experiments to their logical extreme, rarely trying to hide what he's doing.
Sometimes this results in a work of gripping sincerity: Breaking the Waves has been decried as cruel and misogynistic but as I remember it, Emily Watson's performance is fearless and with all attempts at nicety stripped away, a certain brutal honesty leaves no room for the gleeful nastiness that von Trier sometimes capitalizes on. Dogville, on the other hand, is supremely nasty and it makes no bones about it. Any attempt to disassociate the nastiness from the director by concealing it within "the world of the film" is obstructed by the spare set, a stage with chalk outlines, so that we can never look past the film's artifice, and hence never forget that all the trials Nicole Kidman must endure are devised by the man behind the camera, not the characters she interacts with.
But Dancer in the Dark is the rare von Trier film that falls in between. In a sense, this is intentional: the movie combines psuedo-verite video, following the unfortunate trajectory of a factory worker/single mother/immigrant who's going blind (Bjork, who gave up acting due to bad experience with the director) with elaborate, colorful dance sequences, ostensibly the poor woman's fantasies. But the disjunction is not only formal, nor is it merely a function of the docudrama/musical dichotemy. For once von Trier does seem to be concealing his cruelty; numerous awful, terrible things happen to the factory worker, but the situation is so contrived and bizarre that it's often hard to see her suffering as authentic.
Supposedly von Trier didn't want critics to reveal the film's ending, so stop reading if you must, but this gesture usually implies a well-deserved twist. Not here. Bjork goes to her death by public execution and it's the logical conclusion of a story which spares her no ill, and allows her no escape (despite repeated opportunities). Her suffering is attached to a ham-handed anti-Americanism that rings false; any attempt at social comment is diluted by von Trier's slyly idiosyncratic moves: shooting his tale of rural Americana in Scandanavia, filling it with non-Americans (including Catherine Deneuve, of all people, as a factory matron), and stacking the deck so thoroughly against his heroine that her macabre tribulations become something of a joke. The musical sequences are not the problem. If they grew out of dramatic scenes that seemed genuine and unaffected, they would be extremely powerful and poignant. They are somewhat poignant thanks to the commitment of the performers (Bjork and Peter Stormare make a touching almost-couple, which leads into the best musical number, set on a moving train). Sadly, that commitment is frequently betrayed by the director.
The plot and the setting play out as a boy's fantasy of female martyrdom, half-Sunday School, half-sadism. The same could be said of Breaking the Waves but it wore the slightly dreamlike affectations on its sleeve and made them seem like functions of the characters. Here, the potential emotional resonance of the characters never quite transcends the ludicrousness of the scenario.