Dancer in the Dark
Written and directed by Lars Von Trier

Starring Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse


Dancer in the Dark

Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" asks an important question: When will he stop making films about women who are victimized and then die? Like "Breaking the Waves," in which the waiflike Emily Watson found out too late that she'd married a really kinky guy, here the waiflike Selma (Icelandic actress/singer/composer Bjork) plays a Czech immigrant to the U.S. in the 1960s, who suffers from an incurable eye condition that will drive her blind. She scrimps and saves every penny at her factory job to pay for the operation her 13-year-old son needs in order to save his own sight. Yes, she will go blind, but he will see.

Does it sound familiar? Of course; the film, which Von Trier shot in English (though Sweden was used to represent rural Washington State, where it's set), has a story line right out of a 1940s weepie, in which the mother sacrifices herself so that her child -- oh, never mind. What's important here, and well worth our time, is the way in which Von Trier and Bjork manage to infuse that set of cliches with new power. "Dancer in the Dark" has elements that move us, touch us, and even force us to confront in ourselves the temptations toward the kind of banal evil we see in the film, evil that lurks under the surface of our own lives and fantasies.

How have they done it? First, by making the film into, of all things, a musical. When tensions rise around Selma, when the world and its pain or injustice come too close, she finds an escape by hearing musical beats -- in the sounds of machinery at her job, along the railroad tracks nearby, in the voices of her coworkers or friends. And when she hears them, she begins to move and sing (Bjork composed all the music in the film), and is joined by everyone nearby, dancing and singing with her.

But in an interesting switch, we first meet Selma as she's rehearsing the part of Maria in a local production of "The Sound of Music." It's a switch because it's unclear why she's been cast in the role, since Selma-as-Maria is a complete klutz on stage. On stage -- as opposed to her dream fantasies -- she can't move, can't sing, can't dance, and has so much wistful sadness in her demeanor that it leaks out to cover the entire production; no director in his right mind would ever in real life have chosen her for the part. But Bjork herself, and through her, Selma, has a gamine's appeal, with big, dark-rimmed glasses covering her squinty eyes; and a short, pudgy, child's body that somehow emphasizes the innocence of Selma's character.

Selma is not bright (Bjork has a marvelous ability to communicate not-brightness on screen), but she is consumed with the task of acquiring enough money to pay for her son's operation. Though she's going blind she works two shifts. Her friend at the factory (Catherine Deneuve, who looks as well without makeup and in a do-rag as she does in a Paris apartment) watches over her as best she can, becoming her eyes as Selma loses her vision, trying to keep her from injuring herself or others because of her blindness.

Selma and her son live in a rented trailer behind the house of the local police officer and his wife, who've befriended them. But the policeman (David Morse) has a secret: he's broke and desperately needs money. The film slowly takes us through the ramifications of that need, and its consequences for him and for Selma, and it ends at the gallows of Washington's Walla Walla state penitentiary.

Von Trier was the driving force behind the mini-movement known as Dogma 95, a set of inflexible rules governing how films should be made. No background music, no artificial lights or sound effects, no retakes, no filmmaker credits, and a batch of others designed to 'purify' the apparently slutty work done by film studios. No film could get the Dogma Seal of Purity (a real certificate) unless it met all Dogma rules. "Dancer in the Dark" does not carry the seal, however, because it does not come close to meeting the Dogma code. From lip-syncing the songs to carrying music over into dialogue scenes, from making many takes of the same scene -- and even the same speech within the scene -- to putting his name on the film, Von Trier has failed his own tests of purity. But since Dogma 95 was itself an artificial construct, no one cares anymore about whether or not to follow the rules.

What's more important is that the film has enormous power, enough to transcend the banality of its story. Among them, Bjork, Deneuve, Morse, and rejected suitor Peter Stormare find ways to make us care about what happens, to weep for Selma, to wish for magical things that would replace reality. I was moved, touched, saddened. But I am not a fan of Bjork's songs; they are too repetitious, too monotonous, too uninspired in lyrics and melody to enrich the film. Their electronic sound is jarring when it's used in the context of this tragic period piece.

The film was shot in digital video, the great new format for motion pictures because it's enormously cheaper than film and can be transferred easily and without loss of color range or intensity to 35mm film for projection in theatres. The brilliant Robby Muller is credited as director of photography, the person who lights each scene and directs the camera crew, but it's hard to know just what he did on the film since Dogma prohibits lights and Von Trier himself is listed as the camera operator. In any case, the film has brilliance and power mixed with a terrible stupidity of concept, but that's a combination well worth visiting.    

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