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Dancer in the Dark

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Dancer in the Dark

Starring: Bjork Gudmundsdottir, Catherine Deneuve
Director: Lars von Trier
Rated: R
RunTime: 140 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genres: Drama, Music

*Also starring: Udo Kier, Joel Grey, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Jean-Marc Barr, Cara Seymour, Vincent Paterson

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

At one point in this movie--quite an unusual one if only because one cannot place its genre squarely into the category of American musicals or European tragedy--the principal character, Selma (Bjork) declares that she is not afraid of going blind. She has seen everything. And boy, has she ever. She has observed not only the beauty of her adopted country, America--its trees, lakes, mountains, even its railroad trains--but she has been witness to the adversities of life as well. Little does she know just how much more catastrophic her life will become as she has not only lost her job and most of her sight: she may have to give up her obsessive goal to get her son an operation to save his own sight, her chance at what could have been a developing relationship with a good albeit weak-willed man, and even her very life. Selma is a saintly person in the manner of director Lars von Trier's principal played by Emily Watson in his wonderful "Breaking the Waves." Von Trier, once again following the Dogme rules of avoiding the usual appurtenances of Hollywood filming such as an ever-present soundtrack and dramatic lighting, follows the characters around with a hand-held camera to give his picture the rough texture that symbolizes the bleak, working-class lives of the Washington State community.

The story is simple enough to follow and is hardly the reason that "Dancer in the Dark" is bound to compete with "Shadow of the Vampire" as the most talked-about film of the year. Selma, a homely woman who often appears mildly retarded, is an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who in 1963 has found work on a cutting machine in a factory. Her thick glasses will soon be of no help to her as she is swiftly going blind. To save her young boy, Gene (Vladica Kostic) from the same difficulty, she is saving money to give the lad an operation by his 13th birthday. Selma has only two things going for her: one is her friendship with another emigre on the factory floor, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and with her landlord, a policeman named Bill (David Morse) who lives with his spendthrift wife, Jean (Cara Seymour). The other is her rich fantasy life. She has apparently come to America not only to get her son the eye operation he needs but because she believed that this entire country is inhabited by people perpetually performing as though they were in a Hollywood musical. This latter fantasy is what gives von Trier's movie its delightful originality, putting "Dancer in the Dark" on the cutting edge of innovative cinema. Though Selma is a member of a drama group which is about to stage the laughably sugary and banal "The Sound of Music," her fancy takes her into a territory mined more by contemporary stage composers like Stephen Sondheim than by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Every so often--encouraged in some cases by the rhythmic beat of the machines on the factory floor or the choo choo choo of the local railroad train--Selma sweeps herself away into flights of fancy encouraging all those surrounding her (in her own mind) to join in. Since the lyrics, which were composed by Sjon Sigurdsson and the director himself, are sometimes drowned out by the din, and the original music of the lead performer, Bjork (who is also famed in Iceland for her song), is likewise submerged, the audience is unable to feel the impact of the Brechtian commentary. Nor is the choreography particularly inspired.

Nonetheless the movie, which won the Palme D'Or at the recent festival at Cannes, evokes the life of drudgery and soulless existence of factory work in rural America while Bjork's performance as a woman who is sinking both physically and emotionally into a morass of adversity, is utterly heartbreaking.

Bjork and Deneuve are supported well by an ensemble that includes David Morse as the perennial cop and Peter Stormare as the aspiring boy friend. Lars Von Trier shows himself once against as a director with imagination, one who continues to push back the boundaries of cinema, eschewing the fatuous feel-goodism endemic to Hollywood movies for real-life, emotionally gripping drama.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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