Dancer in the Dark

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/12/07 16:01:33

"Stunning von Trier musical; great Björk performance."
5 stars (Awesome)

'Dancer in the Dark' was 2000's love-it-or-loathe-it film (and I do mean loathe -- some critics have downright spit on it). Count me, if you must put it this way, among the suckers who fell for it.

A polarizing film by the Danish auteur Lars von Trier, whose 1996 Breaking the Waves similarly split moviegoers, Dancer in the Dark dares to be a dark-tinged musical with swooning flights of fantasy and vertiginous plunges into despair. Some may find this mixture unpalatable and manipulative; I find it intoxicating, a reminder of what movies can do better than any other medium. The movie is a tribute to the raw power of Hollywood melodrama and the bliss of Hollywood musicals, neither of which has been seen much in such impassioned, undiluted form in these heavily ironic times.

Von Trier introduced Emily Watson to the global audience in Breaking the Waves; here, he introduces Björk -- the Icelandic pop singer who needs no intro to music buffs -- to the big screen. Originally tapped by von Trier only to write and compose the film's songs, Björk wound up playing the heroine, Selma Jezkova, a Czechoslovakian factory worker whose congenital eye disorder will soon render her blind. Selma lives in squalor with her young son Gene (Vladica Kostic), who will lose his sight eventually unless Selma works hard enough to pay for his surgery.

That's the set-up, and that's about all I'm going to reveal -- not that anyone well-fed on centuries of melodrama couldn't forecast most of the film's emotional storms. But as storms go, Dancer in the Dark is about as perfect as we're likely to get this year. Like the bedridden hero of The Singing Detective, Selma uses her memories of Hollywood musicals (which she cherishes) as an escape hatch -- from the tedium of her job and, later, from the nightmare her life has become.

Von Trier's cinematographer Robby Müller shoots everything with drab lighting and a hand-held camera that never met a whip-pan it didn't like -- until von Trier takes us into Selma's head, at which point the film blushes and blossoms into vibrant color as the characters break into song and dance. Then it's back to gray reality again. As the film chases down its climax, it flips back and forth between the styles much more often, indicating Selma's greater need for escape.

The movie boasts one of the more oddball ensembles in recent memory -- Catherine Deneuve as Selma's concerned co-worker (who rehearses with her in an after-hours local production of The Sound of Music); David Morse as a financially strapped policeman and Cara Seymour (the ill-fated prostitute "Christie" in American Psycho) as his shopaholic wife; Peter Stormare (the monosyllabic brute in Fargo) in a rare nice-guy turn as a factory worker who's sweet on Selma; even von Trier mainstays Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier in small roles. But everyone here, as out-of-place as they seem, also seems inexplicably right, and that begins with the casting of Björk, who took the Best Actress prize at Cannes (the film itself won the Palme d'Or).

This isn't a diva vanity project á la Madonna in Evita. Björk is in great voice, which is a bit like saying that rain is wet; but the surprise here is how deeply and fully she gives herself to Selma's extremes of emotion. Reportedly her relationship with von Trier became very strained during filming, and my guess is that he forced her to go where she would rather not have gone. I can only speak as a selfish moviegoer and say that whatever psychic turmoil Björk endured has translated into a star performance alternately radiant and lacerating, sometimes both at once.

Is Dancer in the Dark an ironic parody of musicals or a banal recap of them? Neither tag rings a bell with me. Even without the musical numbers, von Trier has given us a compelling story with original characters. David Morse's cop, for instance, is set up as the villain of the piece, but he's about the nicest and most pitiable villain you could imagine. A female prison guard near the end (soulfully played by Siobhan Fallon, a Saturday Night Live veteran) isn't the usual butch meanie, but a woman whose heart goes out to Selma in her time of trauma. Selma's son, despite her devoting her life to him, barely even notices her most of the time -- he's a realistically self-absorbed kid. The story consistently rubs against the grain of your expectations.

Mingled with the drizzly realism are some of the most dazzling musical numbers in years -- and the happier Selma looks in these numbers, the sadder the movie gets as it goes on. 'Dancer in the Dark' is a true workout, an experience whose sights and sounds will needle you for days whether you like it or not. Fortunately, I loved it.

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