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Dancer in the Dark

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

2000, Fine Line Features
All Rights Reserved

With "Dancer in the Dark" (IMDb listing), the audience is expected to take a long, slow journey into hell. Though this time the road to hell is paved with plenty of Technicolor, singing, and dancing. Normally, a pretty odd journey, but "Dancer" is directed by noted loony Lars von Trier, who himself covered slightly similar terrain in his martyr-classic "Breaking the Waves." Both films are pure, uncut melodrama. Positively shameless in their profession of emotion. "Dancer in the Dark" kicks you right in the gut with raw power and symbolic profession of joy through music. It is one hell of a film that's sure to divide even the most contemplative audiences.

Set in Washington state during 1964, "Dancer" stars pop superstar Bjork as working-class wallflower Selma. A mother of a 12 year-old boy, Selma works double-shifts at the local factory to help pay for a medical procedure that could save her son from a degenerative eye disorder that is rendering Selma herself slowly blind. Leading a mundane life of dwindling possibilities, Selma's love for musicals leads her to daydream about starring in her own musicals that take their cue from the rhythms of her surroundings (there are six musical numbers staged throughout the film).

Though not technically a Dogme 95 presentation, von Trier brings his typical pompous style to "Dancer in the Dark" through the use of hundreds of digital cameras and not one tripod. A pioneer of the no-frills-cinema revolution, von Trier's method finds itself right at home in "Dancer," creating a crucial intimacy with the performers. von Trier's cameras never stop, often flying overhead and frequently swooping down right into the actor's faces. It's a rather gonzo approach to such a critical story, but that very unsentimental approach is exactly what stands von Trier's film apart and gives his pictures such a lasting impact.

The similarities between von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark" are rather blatantly apparent from the first moments of the film. The pictures share the story of the simple woman-child who must suffer greatly for the man she loves, be it Bess sexually degrading herself for her husband in "Breaking" or Selma exposing herself and her affliction to a cruel world to save her son in "Dancer." However, the two films couldn't be further apart. "Waves" was a multicolored rainbow showcasing the power of faith and love. Often taking the narrative in truly upsetting places, "Waves" made me sick with fear for its characters. "Waves" was a complete success and forced many people to confront the dark side of salvation.

"Dancer," on the other hand, is more complicated in its heroine's journey. Selma's devotion to helping her son is only half the film. It is in Selma's head that the real battle of sanity is fought. von Trier realizes these fanciful moments through actual song and dance numbers, with Bjork and her lethal weapon of a voice in the center of it all. It's a brilliant mixture of Danish opera and Hollywood musical. And it comes off fearlessly. The dread of the story is there, but the music keeps the sun shining. "Dancer in the Dark" is a triumph of the uneven Dogme form and dynamic delivery, with rabble-rouser von Trier keeping it all moving along with a naked spirit and a cast in perfect tune with the material.

For her first lead role, Bjork instantly proves herself to be king of the ring. It's an immaculate performance from the pop queen, full of passion and wonder. The production's behind-the-scenes stories suggest strife, but onscreen von Trier and Bjork spin magic. Also contributing the music to the film, Bjork—in her true element—provides the inner thoughts of Selma through concise lyrics and beautiful arrangements. Performed with her typical gusto, Bjork sells each song wholeheartedly, I can only assume leaving a little blood on the microphone when all was said and done.

When Selma's misfortunes turn even darker, "Dancer in the Dark" changes from a mildly sad tale of woe to something truly disturbing. Through misunderstandings and betrayal, Selma finds herself in prison, with only the music in her head to comfort her. In a particularly harrowing moment, Selma fights off silent dread of her cell by dancing spastically and singing "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music" to herself, unable to conjure her usual backing accompaniment. It's the final moments like this that stay in your memory long after you leave the theater. "Dancer in the Dark" is a wondrous piece of filmmaking. A heavenly concoction mixed by von Trier and one of the best films of the year.

Filmfodder Grade: A

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