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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 MrBrown
4 stars out of 4

Without question, the love-it-or-hate-it reaction that greeted Lars von Trier's _Dancer_in_the_Dark_ at this year's Cannes Film Festival will be duplicated as the film slowly rolls out in theatres across the country. The controversial winner of this year's Palme d'Or is a film that not only challenges conventional explanation, it also defies easy analysis. But given the dramatic effect--both positive and negative--that it has on audiences, it can be agreed that Dancer in the Dark is a film like no other, and even if only to simply bear witness to such a bold, experimental work, it commands a viewing.

However, I believe there is a lot more to _Dancer_ than simple curiosity value, and I think my--and the rest of the film's fans'--embrace of the film stems from an idea suggested in a comment that von Trier made (which has also been echoed by co-star Catherine Deneuve) about the film's star, Icelandic music sensation Björk (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes): "She can't really act; she can only feel." Similarly, I think the key to appreciating _Dancer_ is not to watch it, but to "feel" it--to experience the raw gamut of emotions it thrusts upon the audience throughout its 140 minutes.

This idea of "feeling"--and the big debate over the film--is established long before a single image appears on screen. _Dancer_ begins with a somber five-minute overture accompanied by a black screen, and it would be easy to dismiss it as a pompously pretentious move. But it also clearly announces two of von Trier's objectives in this film: first, to evoke the spirit of the grand melodramas of yesteryear; and second, to immerse the audience the point of view of his main character, Selma Jezkova (Björk).

Selma, a Czech immigrant trying to carve out a living as a punch press operator in the 1960s Pacific Northwest, is going blind. Keeping Selma going as her condition rapidly deteriorates is the love of and for her 12-year-old son Gene (Vladica Kostic) and her love for the lavish Hollywood screen musicals. The latter initially manifests itself in Selma's life in her ability to imagine music out of everyday sounds. While the strains of the overture don't derive from such a recognizable source noise, this opening gets the general idea across: the audience sees darkness yet can hear music, much like how Selma experiences her reality.

A number of writers as well as distributor Fine Line Features have been remarkably indiscreet about divulging details about _Dancer_'s story; in fact, the film's trailer gives away one critical plot point. I won't do that myself though I will say this much more about the story: Selma's condition is hereditary, and she puts away every single penny of her negligible factory wages toward an operation that would save Gene from her literally dark fate. To say more than that is to say too much, making the temptation to include spoilers quite understandable--there really isn't much to von Trier's story. That has also been leveled as a criticism of the film, but I think it's a deliberate move; the straightforward plot again reflects old-fashioned screen melodrama dating back to the silent era.

There is another cinematic spirit von Trier conjures up, and that is of the classic, cheery Hollywood musical. References are everywhere--Selma regularly attends showings of Busby Berkeley tunefests with her best friend and co-worker Kathy (Deneuve), who often has to verbally describe the onscreen action to her; Selma and Kathy spend a number of their off hours rehearsing for a community theater production of _The_Sound_of_Music_; and, most notably, Selma has elaborate fantasies of her life as a musical. These numbers, which are shown in a glorious mock-Technicolor splendor, starkly contrast with Selma's reality not only in a visual sense (the shaky hand-held camera work and washed out, _Breaking_the_Waves_-style hues evaporate in favor of a vibrant faux Technicolor and quick cuts between what reportedly are up to 100 fixed digital video cameras) but in an emotional sense--these scenes are all unbridled joy while the rest of the film bears an unshakable air of misfortune and misery. Much has been said about von Trier "reimagining" musical conventions by marrying high-kicking production numbers with a grim story, but, again, he's not so much attempting something fresh than reviving what had been an out-of-fashion aesthetic: that of classical opera, which invariably is tragedy set to music.

Granted, however, these are non-traditional musical numbers, beginning with the music itself. Björk composed all of the songs, and like her other work they are characterized by a dissonant marriage between orchestral arrangements and more manufactured sounds--an admittedly acquired taste for general listening, but a perfect match for this context; nearly all of Selma's numbers are triggered by a real world noise, which lingers as a song's backbeat. That makes just about none of the songs instantly hummable nor memorable (though the pivotal "I've Seen It All" leaves a haunting impression); consequently, each appearance of a musical number--which are all heavily choreographed--is made all the more jarring and, in certain cases, annoying. Nonetheless, a strange effect is achieved; a couple of the interludes don't quite work as you watch them, but when looked back upon as part of the bigger, completed picture, a method is revealed to the madness. Selma's imaginings grow more outrageous as her situation grows more dire, and it becomes clear that her dreams are not so much an escape route from her real life than her only way of actively and effectively living that life.

If, as the comment goes, Björk can't act but only feel, von Trier could not have made a better choice for his lead. Selma's story is all about emotion, and in order for _Dancer_ to succeed, her portrayer must make an instant connection with the audience. And that Björk instantly achieves; Selma may be rather naïve (another point of criticism for the hate-its), but she is endearingly, honestly so, and one is easily willing to accompany her on her flights of fancy and stand by her during her many trials and tribulations. While von Trier's radical storytelling and directorial hand are a large factor, the astonishing, unadorned force of the film's finale would not have been achieved with an "actress" playing Selma. Björk simply is Selma--and the film itself.

Given von Trier's reputation as an insincere provocateur, the impassioned hate-it contingent for _Dancer_in_the_Dark_ is not only understandable, perhaps it's even correct in pegging the film as a fraudulent come-on. _Dancer_ could very well be read as some sick joke, a cynical jab at an America that invites foreigners to its land with sunny propaganda (here, movie musicals) only to plop them down in the diametrically opposing genre--tragic melodrama; or even an experiment in shameless audience manipulation. But if von Trier's machinations are able to wring such a genuine and profound emotional response from the audience by the final frame (and I speak not only of the overwhelming sense of loss and devastation it brings the film's admirers but also the equally fervent anger it incites in its detractors) how can the work be--as the now-infamous _Daily_Variety_ review of the film put it--"artistically bankrupt on every level"? (opens September 23 in New York)

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