Dancer in the Dark

  sugarcubes? what sugarcubes?
Bjork's pixie-like face is cradled by Catherine Deneuve.

2000, Fine Line Features
All Rights Reserved

It's hard to know what to say about this film. It's complex, thought provoking, and elicited a serious emotional response from its audience. Mine were about the only dry eyes in the theater (I never cry during movies).

"Dancer in the Dark" (IMDb listin) centers on the life of a young Czechoslovakian woman named Selma (Bjork) living in Washington state in the 1960s. (Yes Washington looks particularly bleak in the film, that may be because it's not Washington at all, but Eastern Europe.) This film has been called a musical by some. I object to this categorization for several reasons. One, I hate musicals. Period. Two, the film is far too complex and delves far too deep into the darker side of life to fit in the same category as such enterprises as "Grease" or "The Sound of Music." Yeah, there are song and dance numbers, but they serve as poignant contrast with the rest of the film. This is not a light and happy movie.

Bjork is perfectly cast as Selma. She brings her character's innocence and simplemindedness to life. In a cold, dreary world in which Selma must work long hours in a factory in order to provide for herself and her young son, her hopefulness and her childlike dreams are not tempered. She loves to sing and dance, and adores musicals and their magical world in which nothing bad ever happens. She clings stubbornly to hope and views the world with naive wonder. She sees in her landlords, Bill (David Morse) and Linda (Cara Seymour), in the simple material things around her, the stuff of Hollywood movies. But for all her innocence, Selma is equally determined. She is going blind from a rare degenerative disorder. She has given up all hope for correcting her own problem, but secretly saves everything she can to pay for the operation that will save her son's sight.

The difference between reality and Selma's view of it is elucidated in her daydreams. The film is shot predominantly in an unpretentious manner, barely focused, unsteady, and with little use of fancy techniques. The bleak world around her is not at all softened by the direction. In her daydreams, there is suddenly color, and broad, sweeping cinematic shots.

The supporting cast was selected perfectly to contrast with Bjork, whose dark hair, wide eyes and soft features make her look all the more like a child. Selma claims that Linda, a materialistic housewife, could be a famous actress. Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), by contrast, is a woman whose life of hard work has stripped her of anything resembling Selma's wide-eyed and innocent wonder. I can't say enough good things about Denueve's Cathy. I was in awe of her portrayal of Selma's friend and motherly figure. The physical differences between Cathy's blonde hair and sharp features and Selma's child-like apearance further serve to paint Selma as unique, atypical, and outside usual categorization.

The film takes a decidedly tragic turn with a cold and heartless betrayal. Watching Selma say "I trust you," to someone poised to destroy her life is guaranteed to affect you. It is difficult to escape the painful barrage from onscreen. Selma escapes the horror around her through yet another daydream, one that haunts the audience.

Bjork's Selma is a woman of simple hopes and simple dreams in a world that is far too harsh and complex. The result is a tragic story, painful to watch and extraordinarily moving. It's a long film (140 minutes), it's artsy and it's depressing, but if you've got the emotional stamina, or just feel like a really good cry, you can't lose with "Dancer in the Dark."

Filmfodder Grade: A-