by Andrew Howe
Some films punch you in the stomach with a mailed fist; others creep up on you like the evening tide. Occasionally, a film like Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark will do both. It ejects you from the cinema in a daze, shattered and sombre and gasping for air, and though its impact may be immediate, the echoes of its passing resonate in places which are difficult to purge.If I told you that the film capable of provoking such a reaction is a 140-minute, low-budget release by a maverick Danish director, featuring elfin songstress Björk in the lead role and a fine line in song-and-dance routines, you could be forgiven for expecting an excruciatingly boring, poorly-acted exercise in arty pretentiousness. As if to confirm the viewer’s worst fears, the curtains open to a black screen backed by an orchestral score, and after about five minutes of head-scratching we are presented with a scene from a drama class which has the look of being shot on your uncle’s hand-held Super 8 (apparently this kind of opening sequence is known as an overture, but the symbolism doesn’t become apparent until later in the piece). The sight of a bespectacled Björk (complete with an accent which resides on the far side of bizarre) is enough to raise audience-wide grimaces, and you get the impression that it’s going to be a long night.
"Sings far above its range"
Which it is, as it turns out, but the company is so entrancing that the hours dissolve away, and when it’s over you may find that you’ve been touched in places which haven’t seen the light of day for longer than you care to remember. It’s a washed-out, thundercloud-grey rhapsody, the light under the door which invites you in but makes no promises that you’ll be allowed to leave, at least unchanged. It requires patience, and unwavering loyalty to the cause, but the rewards are such that eschewing feel-good floss for a single evening is a small price to pay.
The tale revolves around Selma (Björk), a Czechoslovakian immigrant who slaves in a factory to support her twelve year-old son, Gene (Vladan Kostic). Her nearest and dearest consist of friend and mentor Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), landlords Bill and Linda (David Morse and Cara Seymour), and earnest, would-be suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare). The required conflict stems from the fact that Selma is losing her sight, and needs two thousand dollars to finance an operation which will save her son from a similar fate. It’s a heart-wrenchingly depressing existence, so Selma retreats to the cinema, where old musicals remind her that there is still a little magic in the world. From there the script grows steadily darker, mirroring Selma’s fading eyesight, working its way to a riveting conclusion which, in any other film, would have been merely contrived.
Which is an important distinction, for a simple reading of the plot leaves one with the impression that we are dangerously close to the land of the terminally stupid. However, it is meant to be taken with a grain of salt, for von Trier is crafting a fable, and it’s no less affecting for being only marginally believable. In any event, the film’s low-budget feel lends it the appearance of truth, and the note-perfect performances hammer it home.
I am always wary of making predictions, but I would suggest that the words “Björk” and “consummate actress” will never be heard outside the context of this film. I believe she had one performance in her, one assured, untouchable, bullet-proof effort which silences the critics and repays von Trier’s faith with interest. Over the course of the film she is called upon to display bemusement, quiet resignation, stomach-churning terror, and a great deal more besides, and she discharges all that is required of her with the air of a seasoned performer (which, if you count putting yourself on the line in front of rock festival crowds, she is).
You could argue that the character was specifically tailored to her abilities, but that’s no reason to disparage what is, according to the Jury at Cannes, an award-winning performance. She brings a certain dignity to the proceedings, and her impish features ensure that she will win over all but the hardest of souls. When she smiles the small-town gloom is spirited away, and her vocal delivery is never less than endearing. Selma is not a saint – her sheer bloody-mindedness at the cost of self-preservation is frustrating, and her unwavering resignation is not entirely admirable – but when she cries it’s difficult not to shed a tear for her suffering, and I honestly believe that no other actress working today could have tackled this role in such a sympathetic, affecting fashion.
While this is undeniably Björk’s film, the rest of the cast give it everything they’ve got, and given the calibre of the performers it’s something to relish. David Morse (The Rock, The Green Mile) has always been one of my favourite supporting players, and he brings his trademark sensitivity to a role which most A-list actors wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot barge pole. His portrait of a basically-decent human being driven to the edge of midnight by a demanding wife and financial woes will resonate within anyone who has ever, as Jarvis Cocker once said, “watched their life slide out of view”, and Cara Seymour plays said spouse as the epitome of everyone who has ever known that the saying “we’ll always have each other” just doesn’t cut it in the real world. Meanwhile, Peter Stormare shunts aside the memory of his chilling contract killer in Fargo to present us with a socially-inept but likeable Joe, Siobhan Fallon rises above her brief screen time with a touching portrayal of a sympathetic authority figure, and Catherine Deneuve proves that age has not wearied her by turning in a proud, forceful performance which makes up for every B-grade English-language effort she ever had the misfortune to appear in.
If the film told it straight, we’d still be left with an above-average effort. However, von Trier ups the ante by visualising Selma’s fantasies – she hears music in the sounds of everyday life, from industrial presses to simple footsteps, and at these junctures whichever cast members happen to be on hand break into song-and-dance routines backed by Björk’s ethereal compositions. At first it’s a shock to the system, since the film’s subject matter is absorbing and unremittingly grim, and the first thirty seconds of every routine tends to provoke annoyance at being distracted from the business at hand. However, apart from the odd misstep (the sight of a couple of fishermen waving their rods in time is cringeworthy in the extreme), these superbly-choreographed segments are hypnotically intense, and whatever you think of Björk’s music (not much, in my case) the backing tracks, when combined with her soaring vocals and the left-field visuals, are never less than entrancing.
When he’s not busy tapping his toes, von Trier reminds us that he is most definitely the man with the plan. His penchant for close-up’s would do Sergio Leone proud, and the atmospheric location shots are so washed-out that the chill seeps into the viewer’s bones. Occasionally his camerawork becomes a little disorientating (such as when he continuously pans back and forth between the parties to a conversation), but on the whole he promotes an intimacy which matches the subject matter and enhances the performances of his capable cast.
All of this being said, Dancer in the Dark is unlikely to be universally admired. If you don’t tune into its wavelength it’ll leave you cold, and moreover the depressing subject matter, slow-moving storyline and considerable length ensure it won’t be featuring on anyone’s feel-good Friday night festival. However, I can say without reservation that this is a remarkable film, the kind of effort which stays with you for days afterwards, insinuating itself into your consciousness in those lonely hours before the coming of the dawn. It is an arresting, emotionally-charged paean to the insulating power of imagination, and features, in its conclusion, one of the most stunning, gut-wrenching twenty minutes of cinema it has ever been my privilege to witness.Dancer in the Dark reminds us what filmmakers are capable of, and washes away the lingering aftertaste of every dishonest, uninspired waste of celluloid we’ve had to endure on the road from there to here. You don’t just see it, you *live* it, and as recommendations go, they don’t come much higher than that.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4503&reviewer=193
originally posted: 12/05/00 02:55:16