|Dancer in the Dark|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 20 March 2001|
The above is one of "Dancer’s" many ways of illuminating the difference between the drab, tragic real life of its heroine Selma (Bjork) and her rich, vivid fantasy world. Like a number of the film’s other aspects, the sound gimmick is inventive, clever and more than a little irritating.
Selma is a Czech immigrant, a factory worker in 1964 Washington State who is secretly saving money for an operation that will save her son from the hereditary blindness that is already overtaking Selma’s eyesight. Selma is taking part in an amateur production of "The Sound of Music," but her failing vision is ruining even this bit of joy in her life. Selma is stubbornly optimistic, however, imagining people around her bursting into song and dance to the rhythm of any ambient sound in the vicinity. Although Selma has among her factory peers a loyal friend (Catherine Deneuve) and a would-be suitor (Peter Stormare), her pride prevents her from accepting help and her weak-willed landlord (David Morse) gets her into inconceivable, tragic trouble.
Director/writer Lars Von Trier, who shot to international fame with "Breaking the Waves," is highly creative, but he tries too hard here to strike emotional chords without the necessary foundation. "Breaking the Waves" also had a brave, childlike heroine who got into a horrendous jam out of love, but that film had such weird, unpredictable quirks and the protagonist was presented as being so idiosyncratic that it was easier to accept the plot twists. Although there are a few charming, naturalistic scenes – such as one where Selma explains why she always leaves musicals before the final song – "Dancer" asks us too many times to empathize with behavior that is self-destructive seemingly on a whim rather than due either to innocence or necessity. Further, although motherly love is the engine driving the plot, we see almost nothing of the relationship between Selma and her boy. It’s hard to be asked to weep over something we never see, so that when Von Trier goes for the emotional jugular, some viewers may be more inclined to recoil than to well up with sentiment.
Von Trier creates some startling effects with his juxtapositions between Selma’s grim existence and her musical daydreams. It’s not precisely a novel concept – writer Dennis Potter did something very similar in the 1970s British miniseries "Pennies From Heaven" (which was subsequently made into an American feature film starring Steve Martin) – but Von Trier has both original ideas and an original score by Bjork. The songs sound a bit like updated Kurt Weill, complete with playfully cynical lyrics and a melodic line that often dips when it seems about to soar, backed by a percussive beat that is deliberately industrial (Selma takes much of her inspiration from the machines around her, after all). The imagery produced by the staging evokes (no doubt deliberately) the agitprop poster art of the ‘30s celebrating productive workers.
The picture is extremely clear and vivid. The musical numbers are much more brightly colored than the "reality" segments, but even the latter are very sharp. Von Trier goes for some intentionally artless framing – we get pans that go across the middle of characters’ faces – but he also creates some stirring effects. The big Chapter 13 "I’ve Seen It All" number (nominated for a Best Song Oscar) has some ingenious lyrics and soaring acoustics, though the mix is a bit lopsided, with the music coming close to swamping Bjork’s vocals in places. Chapter 23 bends the film’s evidently self-imposed rule about use of other speakers in reality segments, putting an eerie whisper in the rears as Selma sings "My Favorite Things."
The supplemental material, especially the two voiceover commentary tracks, explains a great deal about some of "Dancer’s" more enigmatic properties, beginning with the abstract art montage that opens the movie. These are in nicely-recorded stereo, coming clearly through the left and right mains, although some of the filmmakers’ accents may be challenging for certain viewers. The "alternate scenes" segment consists of a different version of the musical number "Cvalda" and two separate unused renditions of "I’ve Seen It All," the last of which is in 5.1. The extra labeled "Selma’s Music" turns out to be a jump-to-song option, which helpfully lets the viewer select the sound format (DTS, Dolby 5.1, 2.0) before proceeding on to the requested number. There are also two making-of features, one on Von Trier and one on the movie’s choreography.
"Dancer in the Dark" is unusual and intellectually engaging, but it sets itself a challenge that it can’t meet. Viewers who are automatically swept away by musicals may be captivated by the contrasts here, but others will feel that the elements of "Dancer in the Dark," skillfully crafted though many are, do not add up to a satisfying whole.