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With: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Cara Seymour, Joel Grey, Udo Kier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Directed by: Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Running Time: 141
Date: 05/17/2000

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Seeing the Music

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was prepared, going into Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, to dispute the Best Actress award given to Bjork at the Cannes film festival. But after just a few minutes, I was convinced that she had deserved the award after all. She had charmed me as effortlessly as she had charmed the Cannes jury.

Dancer in the Dark is von Trier's true follow-up to his masterpiece Breaking the Waves (1996); no matter that his Dogme 95 film, The Idiots (1998) came inbetween. Dancer in the Dark shares the same widescreen hand-held camerawork (by the great Robby Muller), the same jump-cut editing, the same waiflike heroine at its center, and the same heart-on-its-sleeve melodramatic story. But whereas Breaking the Waves had a considerably modern story, Dancer in the Dark could just as easily have been a silent D.W. Griffith melodrama with Mary Pickford.

Pop singer Bjork plays Selma, a Czechoslovakian immigrant living in the U.S. and working two jobs; making metal washbins in a factory and inserting pins on little cards. Selma has a rare eye disease and is slowly going blind. Her son has inherited the same disease and Selma is saving up so that he can receive an operation. Her best friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) lends her a hand and the lovestruck lunkhead Jeff (Peter Stormare from Fargo) shows up to give her a ride whenever she needs it. Selma lives in a trailer outside the home of Bill (David Morse) and Linda (Cara Seymour), who are supposedly rich, but in reality are not. Though completely innocent, Selma is blamed for stealing her own money and killing Bill.

But Dancer in the Dark is also a musical. Selma, when inspired by the rhythms of the factory or a train, or anything else, will break into song. The songs are treated MTV-style, with lots of fast cuts and action. But they're also an homage to the classic Hollywood musicals made from the 1930's to the 1950's. At one point, Joel Grey (Cabaret) shows up to perform a duet with Selma. The musical numbers are also digitally colored and brightened to separate them from the drab shades of reality (the movie is shot on video to emphasize this). And, at the same time, the musical numbers allow Selma to postpone the inevitable horrors of her life. (For example, during the musical numbers she is able to see.)

The songs were written by von Trier and Bjork, and they sound like Bjork's trademark songs. She has an amazing exuberance, a delicate cuddliness, that allow her to get away with breaking into song. Her face is incapable of dishonesty and comes close to naivete. When she sings, "you will always be there to catch me--when I fall," her absolute faith in the power of the musical makes your spine tingle.

Von Trier is vicious when it comes to milking the melodrama. The last two songs are almost guaranteed to make you weep. When Selma makes the 107-step walk to the gallows at the end, she has to make a song of it so that she can actually do it. The song is simply counting from 1 to 107, but it becomes more and more heartbreaking the closer it gets to the end. With the rope around her neck, Selma sings, "this is the next to last song" (we learn earlier that she has never stayed to the end of a musical because she hated to see them end; she left just after the next to last song).

Dancer in the Dark plays a lot like some of the French New Wave classics of the 1950's and 1960's. Von Trier is aware that he's paying tribute to musicals and other kinds of film, and sometimes his characters are aware of it too ("I don't just suddenly break out into song," Jeff says to Selma). This can cause a sheen of artificiality to a movie, but when the enthusiasm is there, such as it is here, it works.

This movie had me in its clutches almost from the start. Its only small problems can be forgiven by the nature of the story. Some of the details of living in modern day America are slightly bent (such as the courtroom proceedings). And, really, would someone as elegant and beautiful as Catherine Deneuve be working in a factory? Nonetheless, Dancer in the Dark is an absolutely magical movie that I will treasure for some time to come.

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