Dancer in the Dark

“Dancer in the Dark” is the kind of film you either love or hate. There’s no in-between when it comes to director Lars Van Trier’s haunting musical about one woman’s harrowing journey through an unjust legal system.

dancer in the darkShot in the director’s familiar Dogma style of hand-held cameras and crude jump cuts, “Dancer in the Dark” is cinema at its most unconventional. The director challenges us at every turn, forcing us to leave all of our previous cinematic luggage at the gate. Van Trier then takes us on a journey filled with memorable performances and unexpected turns. Those who willingly take that journey will appreciate the payoff. Those who like their narratives served straight up will abandon the ride altogether.

I was hesitant to take the journey with the director, whose past films have been brilliant yet flawed explorations of the human spirit. Emily Watson’s brave performance as a disillusioned wife in “Breaking the Waves” demonstrated the director’s ability to draw the best out of his actors. Yet his cinematic indulgences (or lack of them) make his films difficult to watch. Dogma 95 dictates that the directors in the series must return to cinema’s roots, using hand-held cameras and natural lighting to create their canvases.

Not necessarily the stuff movie musicals are made of, but “Dancer in the Dark” isn’t like any movie musical you have ever seen. True to form, Van Trier captures the film’s dramatics with shaky camera movements and editing. Then something wonderful happens. When the characters start singing, Van Trier totally respects the genre. He plants the camera on a tripod. The washed out colors become bright and cheery. It’s like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy Gale steps out of her black and white house into a colorful Munchkin Land.

Van Trier has found himself a fabulous Dorothy in Icelandic singer Bjork, whose unusual look and accent are perfect for this film. Bjork plays Selma, a Czech immigrant who has moved with her son to a small town in Washington State. Selma lives in a small trailer on the property of local policeman Bill (David Morse) and his gold-digging wife Linda (Cara Seymour). When she’s not tussling with her son for ditching school, Selma works in a nearby factory.

Even though her eyesight is failing her, Selma desperately needs the job. She fakes an eye exam in order to do this, much to the dismay of friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), who feels compelled to watch over Selma. Kathy knows Selma is going blind, and even though she wants to help her, she realizes that her condition can cause injury or death at the factory.

What Kathy doesn’t know is that Selma’s condition is hereditary, and will affect her son unless she can raise enough money for an operation. That forces Selma to make some tough choices and lie to the people she trusts and loves. She doesn’t want her son to know about the condition, so she pretends to send every available dollar to an imaginary father back home. That may force them to live in poverty, but it gives Selma hope for the future.

How that future comes smashing down around Selma makes up the second half of the film. Through a series of complicated misunderstandings, Selma finds herself on trial for murder. Forced by a promise to stay silent, Selma endures a one-sided trail.

How all of this works as a musical is even more complicated. Unlike traditional musicals, where the songs are used instead of dialogue to move the story forward, the musical numbers in “Dancer in the Dark” are presented as Selma’s daydreams. Some may argue that they do nothing to move the story forward, yet I found them pivotal in terms of character development. These musical moments, presented in places like the factory and on a train track, are Selma’s interior dialogues and are vital to letting us know who she really is.

Bjork delivers a masterful performance. At first you distance yourself, caught off guard by her halting, kinetic voice and diminutive, pixie looks. After spending ten minutes with Selma you open up your arms and want to embrace her. With the help of Van Trier, Bjork peels off the layers until we’re left with a raw wound of a character. It’s painful to watch this woman fall through the cracks.

“Dancer in the Dark” is filled with marvelous symbolism, most notably the railroad tracks that run next to Selma’s trailer. Selma is on a journey, and the tracks represent that. It all becomes extremely clear when Selma finds herself railroaded by a legal system that refuses to see the truth. The train wreck comes when Selma finds herself helpless to do anything about her situation.

Bjork gets excellent support, especially from Deneuve as her best friend and mentor, and Morse as the understanding neighbor who is hiding a secret of his own. Peter Stormare has some nice moments as a man smitten with Selma, forced to accept her rejections with a glimmer of hope. Selma has no time for a boyfriend. Every moment of her life is spoken for.

Shot in Sweden, standing in for Seattle, “Dancer in the Dark” is Van Trier’s most accomplished film. He easily convinces us that we’re in small town America. His images are filled with striking vitality. The hand held camera shots are a perfect contrast to the traditional camera work of the musical numbers. Together, they form a hallucinogenic experience that lingers in the mind.

There have been attempts at mixing dark drama and music before, but nothing comes close to Van Trier’s double-edged sword. He slices away at convention, and what he discovers underneath is much more interesting to look at.

Some will walk out of “Dancer in the Dark” feeling bewildered and un-amused. Then there are those of us who will feel exhilarated and alive. Any film that can evoke both sets of those emotions is worthy of a look. It broke my heart and made me believe again in the spirit of independent cinema. In my opinion, “Dancer in the Dark” deserves to be on everyone’s year-end Top Ten List. It made mine.


Bjork is remarkable as film’s tiny dancer


Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Cara Seymour, Vladica Kostic. Directed by Lars Van Trier. Rated R. 140 Minutes.


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