January 2, 2015

Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark (141 minutes) 2000/Rated R – starring Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Cara Seymour, Vladan Kostic, Vincent Paterson, Jean Marc-Barr, Siobhan Fallon, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgard. Written and directed by Lars Von Trier. Released through Fine Line Features. Currently in theatres.

The diminutive Icelandic singer Bjork makes one of the most impressive film debuts in a long time. As a tool factory worker slowly losing her vision in the film “Dancer in the Dark,” she has the cherubic face and expressive eyes to give credibility to her character’s upbeat struggle staying strong in the face of horrific odds. This is a film that splits critics and audiences down the line. They are either completely annoyed by it or are hailing it as a masterpiece. Well, this review calls it a tie. The subject matter of the film was very annoying. Bjork’s performance is Oscar-worthy.

Set in Washington State in 1964, a bespectacled Bjork plays Selma, a woman with a degenerative eye condition whose son faces the same genetic fate. Working double shifts and side jobs in a race to earn enough money to buy her son an operation that would halt the affliction, Selma daydreams of life seen through the world of Hollywood musicals. Her best friend, factory laborer Catherine Deneuve, takes her to revival cinema showings of Busby Berkeley movies, describing the action to her near-blind pal. A benevolent police officer, on whose land she rents her trailer home living quarters, is in debt and winds up stealing Selma’s hard-earned savings. This action, along with her being let go from the factory, sets in motion a domino effect of tragic proportions.

Writer/director Von Trier, who gained notoriety with his 1995 film “Breaking The Waves,” once again focuses a story on a meek, kind-hearted woman who is virtually destroyed by the desires of others and the fragility of health. This time, however, the anti-fairy tale is completely malicious and vindictive. The viewing experience equates with watching a skillful hunter shoot out the legs of an unsuspecting fawn, one by one. While we’re scratching our heads at the outrageous contrivances Von Trier has chosen to torture his awkward swan with, we’re riveted by the total commitment in strength and nobility Bjork brings to her anguished heroine. Through the palpable and stark suffering she exemplifies, her performance transcends the screen, appearing at times as if she, the actress, is furious with Von Trier’s callous, manipulative fable.

Shot on digital video in documentary fashion, ‘reality’ scenes are drained of color, whereas, Selma’s musical alter-life is saturated in deep hues. Von Trier jump-cuts his scenes, pulling up pauses and editing quickly between isolated character lines. The jagged nature of this technique becomes distracting during moments of intense emotion. Eight songs contain rhythms spawned from natural sounds, i.e. locomotives, phonograph scratches, footsteps, etc. The lyrics are literal, Andrew Lloyd Webber-style, readings, wherein Bjork just warbles in reaction to the events having just transpired on screen. The musical numbers are a novelty, to be sure, but tend to wear thin by about the fourth song.

Aside from Bjork, the other cast members are extremely laudable in their roles. Catherine Deneuve shows great compassion as Selma’s true bud. David Morse as the cop gives just as complex a performance as Bjork’s, pulling our empathy strings one minute and pushing our hatred button the next. The other standout performance comes from Siobhan Fallon who plays a prison guard. Her very quiet, compassionate scenes with Bjork are the best in the film, and we completely identify with her wrenching inability to help the crushed angel before her.

Von Trier has taken the idealistic promises of Hollywood musicals, those that portray a world in which nothing bad ever happens, and has juxtaposed it against a story in which a girl who dreams of this Utopian existence winds up being flushed down life’s toilet. It’s as if he’s saying, we will never be able to live out the fallacies portrayed in Hollywood. Life is mean-spirited and unjust. There is no redemption. The silent camera pullout at the end of the film is the antithesis of the Berkeley musical. Von Trier just wants us to know life sucks.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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