Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/24/04 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark is a film about a Czech immigrant raising her son in 1964 America trying to raise money to save her son's sight as her own vision diminishes. In the spirit of Dogme 95, von Trier goes for natural sounds and realism for storytelling as he also combines another film genre that he loves, the musicals. In Dancer in the Dark, von Trier uses the musical as an escapist backdrop to the character of Selma, played by Icelandic vocalist Bjork, as her world crumbles down as she tries to save the life of her own son in one of von Trier's most powerful achievements.
It's 1964 in Washington as Czech immigrant Selma is rehearsing to play Maria for a production of The Sound of Music. While working at a factory with her friends Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and Jeff (Peter Stormare), Selma hopes get the role for the play as she dreams of being in a musical while hoping to raise money for her son Gene (Vladica Kostic) who might become blind as she is starting to suffer from blindness. While her landlord in local officer Bill (David Morse) and his wife Linda (Cara Seymour) help out, she has managed to save $2000 as Gene's doctor (Stellan Skarsgard) starts to worry about Selma's eyesight. While she tries to hide her blindness from everyone including the factory foreman (Jean-Marc Barr), it doesn't help out as her work suffers while the play director (Vincent Paterson) thinks she might not be up to doing the part.
Following a meeting with Bill over his own financial issues due to Linda's spending, Selma decides to keep a secret for Bill. Hoping to get more overtime for more money, she suddenly daydreams of being in a musical where she causes trouble and is fired. After telling Jeff about her blindness, she has another daydream moment as Jeff decides to meet her later that day. Upon returning home, Selma learns that the money she has saved was stolen as she asks Bill where something goes wrong leading to a horrifying incident. Meeting up with Jeff, he takes her to the hospital where they meet the operation doctor (Udo Kier) and gives him money for Gene's operation. After being arrested following a rehearsal, Selma is then put into trial where its district attorney (Zeljko Ivanek) interrogates her.
Claiming her father is Czech film star Oldrich Novy (Joel Grey), Novy attends the trial as she has a dream that they're dancing for a musical number. Sent to jail following the trial, Selma befriends a guard named Brenda (Siobhan Fallon) as Selma makes another move to save her son's life.
The film is clearly von Trier's most accessible effort to date despite his emphasis on handheld digital video cameras that he used since he is also credited as the camera operator. Emphasizing on the spirit of Dogme 95, von Trier brings a natural look to the film as opposed to the more cinematic, heightened look of most films today. With Breaking the Waves cinematographer Robby Muller, von Trier gives the film a look that is captivating from its grayish tone in many scenes to the more colorful tone in the musical interludes where Muller shines in his vast cinematography, especially since the musical numbers features nearly 100 cameras in use. For von Trier, it’s another experiment that succeeds as he just tries to bring a real look without any gloss that has been seen in Hollywood films.
The film's story is a wide mix of melodrama and musicals as Bjork's Selma says that in musicals, nothing dreadful happens. Well with von Trier, that isn't the case. Especially the ending that is just heartbreaking because of its sadistic nature as von Trier uses pain for a huge, emotional climax like he did in Breaking the Waves. Really, the story is about a woman saving the life of her child by sacrificing herself and it's a heartbreaking story. While the film's first act starts off a bit slow (if you don't count the colorful overture in the film's first few minutes), it picks up just as the musical numbers come in with amazing choreography from Vincent Paterson as well as original music from Bjork with additional compositions from longtime Bjork collaborator Sjon Sigurdsson and von Trier himself.
The music definitely plays up to the spirit of musicals that von Trier has loved with its mix of electronic beats and textures as well as Rodgers & Hammerstein arrangements all put in a lush, grand tone. Bjork is clearly the star of the music as the cast itself sings many of the great songs on the film (although Peter Stormare's vocals were replaced by Radiohead's Thom Yorke in the film's soundtrack entitled Selmasongs). The music really serves a purpose in the same way von Trier used the music as an emotional outlet in Breaking the Waves.
Another great aspect of the film, which received a lot of controversy when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, was von Trier's depiction of America. While the film was shot in Sweden, von Trier does give a nice idea in what America would look like although in Washington, it's usually rainy. In many respects, von Trier is looking at America in a dream in the same way Stanley Kubrick used London as New York City for Eyes Wide Shut. Really, it's America in a dreamier tone in reference to the Hollywood musicals that Selma loved. Really, von Trier isn't trying to knock America but he knows that he doesn't have to go there to know what's going on since he's pretty much afraid to go on a plane and doesn't like to travel very much.
The film's cast is amazing not just in their singing voices but in their roles as well. While von Trier veterans like Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, and Jean-Marc Barr had small roles, their cameos were fun to watch in their respective roles while Vincent Paterson is excellent as the theater director and Zeljko Ivanek is excellent as the D.A. and doing a great job in an American accent. Joel Grey is amazing to watch in his small role as Oldrich Novy as he shows his graceful talent as a dancer and as an actor, especially since he hasn't been heard from since his Oscar-winning performance in Bob Fosse's Cabaret.
Cara Seymour is wonderful as the scornful wife Linda, especially playing a character that later on, is loathed for her actions and Seymour does an excellent job in that performance. Vladica Kostic is wonderful as Gene, especially since he just plays a kid in a restraint tone without going over the top or anything. Siobhan Fallon is lovely as Brenda as the scenes with Bjork are gripping to watch, especially in the film's final moments.
For the rest of the supporting cast, the film's best performance easily goes to French film legend Catherine Devenue. Devenue is amazing to watch as Selma's sympathetic best friend who shares her love of musicals. Devenue almost serves as a voice of reason for the anguished, naïve Selma as in the third act; her action nearly upsets Selma as in the end, comes a heartbreaking scene of friendship. Devenue is as enigmatic and masterful in her portrayal. Peter Stormare is superb as the wannabe-boyfriend Jeff by just underplaying the role sensitively and sympathetically and you want him to be her boyfriend. Stormare gives a subtle performance that is quiet and gripping at the same, especially in the film's final act. David Morse is amazing as the anguished Bill who does get sympathy despite his own actions but when Morse sings, he shines as does his character that gives more outlook into this versatile yet, underrated actor.
The film's best performance overall easily goes to Bjork in her first film in many years since she's done film work as a child in her native Iceland. In her first adult performance, Bjork brings a heartbreaking, sympathetic performance that is filled with lost innocence and anguish. The character of Selma is a complex yet flawed character as she brings the escapism in everyone through musicals. Bjork even comes livelier in the musical interludes with her thick Icelandic vocals while in the final act, she comes out with a gripping performance that is so powerful, it will leave you in tears.
Dancer in the Dark is a spectacular, genre-bending film from Lars von Trier. With a great cast led by Bjork and Catherine Devenue along with wonderful musical interludes, the film is among one of von Trier's more accessible film as well as one of his strangest. While it has a look that is strange despite the dated look of the digital photography, it is a film that is very abstract and dream-like. In the end, Dancer in the Dark is a superb film from Lars von Trier.
Lars von Trier Films: The Element of Crime - Epidemic - Medea - Europa - The Kingdom I - Breaking the Waves - The Kingdom II - Dogme #2-Idioterne - Dogville - The Five Obstructions - Manderlay - The Boss of It All - Antichrist - Dimension (2010 short) - Melancholia - Nymphomaniac - The House That Jack Built - The Kingdom: Exodus - (Etudes)
Related: The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier
Related: The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier
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