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Dancer in the Dark Print E-mail
Tuesday, 20 March 2001

Dancer In The Dark

New Line Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey
release year: 2000
film rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Let us begin the "Dancer in the Dark" with a word of warning, lest unwary viewers (as this reviewer did) spend the first several chapters of the movie wondering – especially following New Line’s subwoofer-rattling logo theme – why every speaker but the center channel seems dead. Moving from DTS to regular Dolby 5.1 surround doesn’t help – the mix is quite good (considering), but it’s all coming through the center. The rears and mains briefly come to life in Chapter 7, when the characters discuss the traditions of movie musicals. Approximately 40 minutes in, when the first full-blown musical number "Cvalda" kicks in, the full sound system awakens to support the vocals, orchestrations and pounding percussive beat. When the music ends, we are left with only the center channel again – until the next song, at which point – you guessed it – we’re back in DTS 5.1 again.

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.

more details
sound format:
English DTS; English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Audio Commentary by Director/Writer Lars Von Trier, Producer Vibeke Windelov, Technical Supervisor Peter Hjorth and Artist Per Kirkeby; Audio Commentary by Choreographer Vincent Paterson; Alternate Versions of Two Song Sequences (Three Versions Total); Making-Of Documentary "100 Cameras: Capturing Lars Von Trier’s Vision"; Making-Of Documentary "Choreography: Creating Vincent Paterson’s Dance Sequences"; Jump To Song Feature; Cast and Crew Filmographies; Theatrical Trailers; Cast and Filmmaker Biographies; Production Notes; English Subtitles; Chapter Search
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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