by Greg Muskewitz
When the really good films start rolling in, you really take notice of it. Since the release of The Cell in middle August, there seems to be a consistency of stragglers falling in on a more regular basis than from the first half of the year. 2000 has been pretty dull. However, Dancer in the Dark is a touching, heart wrenching film that's arrival couldn't be any more crisp and fresh.Dancer in the Dark is a heterogeneous mix of quite a few things. We have a free-wheeling camera by anti-gimmick director Lars Von Trier, innovative, unusual Icelandic alterna-pop star Björk starring in a heavy-handed, yet fancifully light drama with spontaneous musical numbers. I have never been a fan of musicals; like one of the characters asks, "Why do they suddenly start to sing and dance?" The musical numbers were becoming the downfall of Disney movies, and in other movies it was rarely on the same level as the rest of the movie.
"Breathtaking. It redefines musicals."
It's 1964 in the Washington State area, and Selma (Björk) is a Czech immigrant with a 10-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Selma works at a factory making sinks, but she hides the fact that she's going blind. It's a family disease, one aggravated by stress, so Selma keeps Gene from knowing about it. While she's especially strict and thrifty when it comes to her son, in privacy she's been saving all her money for a correctional operation for Gene.
Selma and Gene live in a rented trailer belonging to neighbors Bill (David Morse), a cop, and his spendthrift wife Linda (Cara Seymour). When Bill lets Selma in on a secret that he's gone broke and unable to tell his wife, she tells him about Gene's upcoming surgery. But Bill, unable to tell her still, steals the money, forcing Selma to "rob" him, and kill him. Selma has no alternatives. All her efforts have gone into the money, including threading hairpins. She's so simplistic, very childlike almost unaware to the bad. But she's innocent -heck, she imagines singing musical numbers and breaking into song and dance to pass the time ("In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens."). Selma briefly runs away to secure the operation, and upon arrival, she is arrested and quickly sentenced to be hanged. Even when there's a possibility for her to be cleared ("She's a romantic, communistic woman who adores Fred Astaire."), she doesn't want the money used on her. Her altruism is noble and honest. And of course over the aggravation and stress of this all, Selma has just about gone completely blind.
Dancer in the Dark is definitely not a positive-feeling film, although there are positive messages, it actually is very depressing. Nothing illustrated the pure determination and love like the way Selma proved by her sacrifice. Von Trier, also the writer, wove a plain story without much décor, and with the addition of the song and dance -about 6 or 7 numbers-creates an equilibrium of symmetry for the film. The first number, "Cvalda," was the best of the film and most elaborate (although the choreography on the train and the courtroom was also very good), but the rhythmic grinding, clattering and crashing in the factory was very catchy and clever. It carried a daedal and halcyonic beat, very enjoyable with a very at ease feeling. In the film, the fourth number kind of felt monologuey, but sounds much better on the soundtrack. It's the opposite for the third song, which looks good on screen, but the song isn't as powerful without the visuals.
The sacrificial theme is totally identifiable, and that's what makes it so poignant. Selma's friend Jeff (Peter Stormare) asks her, "Why did you have him? You knew he'd have the same disease." She explains, "I just wanted to hold a baby."
Björk is note-perfect, to the tee. She envelops one of the most stunning debuts in a long time. Björk never comes across as anything less than real. The little quirks she does as her character, like sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth or placing her finger in the glass to feel for the level of water all add to the validity of her nuances. Björk's music, that which came before this film, is very creative; she is one of my favorite artists. And in acting, she captures and controls the same panoply of power and intrigue. She doesn't just give it, she demands it. Björk provides a mellifluous continuity and impressive array; not only does she capture the eye (and the heart), but as the rara avis she is, and the unique, unusual voice she speaks with, I hope she gets the recognition she deserves.
Although Björk is truly the star of this, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Cara Seymour, Vladica Kostic and Udo Kier are all very good supporters, but even better are Catherine Deneuve and a beautifully humane role by Siobhan Fallon.
Von Trier effectively controls everything that happens during the film. He knows where to poke bits of humor (about Björk's unique voice: "I think she sings funny."), but also he is able to reduce the audience to tears. The airy, hand-held cinematography by Von Trier and Robby Müller is a major flaw. It's so shifty (and choppily cut) and monochromatically drabish, except during the numbers when it becomes a bleached bright. Yet these flaws are easy to overlook for the arrangement of the whole.
Dancer in the Dark is a bold, deeply touching film. Definitely one of the year's best. Björk's music creations and compositions for the film are ethereal. Her performance evokes magic, and it goes without saying that this is a cinematic masterpiece. It dares to redefine the standards for musicals to come. Dancer in the Dark is revolutionary for all musicals! It also has the most note-perfect ending (not that we like it) since The Straight Story.Final Verdict: A.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4503&reviewer=172
originally posted: 10/18/00 09:39:34