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Once one overcomes the powerful urge to ring up Mr. von Trier and introduce him to wild new concepts such as "tripod," "dolly," and "Steadicam," (as well as "script" and "logic," but we'll save these tiny quips for later), it becomes marginally possible to settle into his latest effort, a thudding and profoundly nonsensical tearjerker set (rather arbitrarily) in an imaginary America (a country, word has it, that von Trier has never actually visited... but fair enough -- odds are George Lucas has never been to Naboo, either). It's 1962 in a small town in Washington state, and a symbol of feminine determination and innocence by the name of Selma (pop singer Björk, whose name, for the record, rhymes with smirk, not fork) has arrived from Czechoslovakia to starve pathetically with her hopeful ten-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Perhaps the lessons in cockney dialect cost her a pretty penny (the chanteuse herself has commented that her accent is "pretty fucked"), or perhaps finding employment in the only sheet-metal shop in lumber country exhausted her resources, but for whatever reason, Selma and son are forced to squat in a little shack on the property of struggling policeman Bill (David Morse) and his spendthrift wife, Linda (Cara Seymour), who are basically a Ward-and-June unit with the denial showing. Oh yeah, and Selma is going blind.
When she's not risking life and limb banging out stainless steel sinks (or risking delirium staying up nights carding hairpins), Selma focuses on her life's one true passion: senseless self-sacrifice. Oops, make that musicals -- that's right, musicals -- because "nothing dreadful ever happens" in them. (This peculiar opinion is shared by von Trier in the press notes. Do they not have access to Sondheim in Europe?) A creature of joy and light and wonder and rainbows trapped in an austere, oppressive environment, Selma lives for musicals, a passion she shares with her equally dialectally challenged friend and coworker, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). When Selma isn't busily staving off the utterly unmotivated advances of local yokel Jeff (Peter Stormare), she and Kathy attend musicals at the local cinema, where, to the annoyance of other audience members who "paid good money" to get in, Kathy provides a running commentary on the imagery Selma's failing eyes can no longer see. In some of the very few plausible (and genuinely moving) dramatic sequences, Kathy also aids Selma in their rehearsals of an amateur production of The Sound of Music, in which the latter, a gibbering, thick-skulled simpleton, portrays a very unlikely Maria.
The thrust of the drama -- such that it is -- comes from Selma's unhappy dilemma. She has grown comfortable with her encroaching blindness -- a genetic disorder that has her tapping the railroad tracks with her foot to find her way home or finger-testing a water glass to see if it's full -- but she cannot accept a similar fate for Gene. "In Czechoslovakia I saw a film," she explains to her neighbors, "and they were eating candy from a tin just like this, and I was thinking how wonderful it must be in the United States!" When Bill and Linda give her the container of Almond Roca, she uses it to conceal her paltry stash of cash, which she's been socking away to pay for Gene's operation -- a vague situation she steadfastly refuses to explain to anyone, not even her son. Criticized for being a Communist and browbeaten for being a bad mother (despite her affection for her bountiful new homeland, she takes no joy in her son receiving a shiny new bicycle), Selma finds her life becoming a sort of monomania, working her fingers to the bone so that her son might see.
Of course, if all this worked out, we'd have soap opera melodrama but no movie, so von Trier has spiked the punch with ridiculous and volatile plot points. First, during a solemn tête-à-tête in which Selma and Bill share their secrets (her blind ambition, his bankruptcy), a neighborly trust is obscenely violated. (Exacerbating the falseness, Selma -- whose whole life is based upon auditory stimuli -- never detects the criminal in her own kitchen.) Second, when Selma is forced to confront Bill and regain her savings, the scene erupts into a preposterous rush of violence that could be called silly, hilarious, ghastly, confusing, or just plain dumb -- anything but believable. At this point the intrepid viewer may either leave or discard all hope for accountability and common sense. Any who stays will be pummeled with von Trier's emotional cudgel, plus a bushel and a peck of belting and whimpering from Björk. (Bright appearances by Siobhan Fallon as a warden and von Trier regular Udo Kier as a doctor help to maintain interest.) Those who leave can buy the soundtrack album (Björk's Selmasongs), which, thematically, works great on endless repeat if you simultaneously pop in a copy of Polanski's Tess with the sound turned down.
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