Unconventional Film That Was Both Jeered and Cheered at Cannes
Icelandic pop singer Björk gives an extraordinary performance in Dancer in the Dark, a challenging English-language movie from Danish writer-director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves). Even though the film drew catcalls as well as applause when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival, it nevertheless was awarded the Palme dOr, and Björk won Best Actress. Some people are going to hate Dancer in the Dark because of its strange and unexpected mix of styles, and I must admit that during my first viewing, I often felt uneasy and frustrated. But on my second pass through the film, I really started to like it a lot, and I highly recommend it to viewers willing to be a little patient with a movie that steadfastly refuses to bow to conventionality.
Deliberately Over-the-Top Melodrama
The story in Dancer in the Dark is straightforward--even corny. In 1964 Washington state, Selma (Björk) is going blind from a degenerative eye disease which is past the stage where she can be helped. Her preteen son has inherited the disease from her, and Selma has moved to the United States from Czechoslovakia for her son to have an operation that will prevent him from going blind, too. To get money for the operation, Selma works an hourly job operating heavy machinery at a tool company. But her vision is rapidly deteriorating, and shes in a race against time to accumulate enough money for her sons operation before she goes blind. The films deliberately contrived plot is then set in motion, and its so over the top that it resembles an early silent-era melodrama. Theres a betrayal, leading to a protracted murder scene, during which victim and killer converse. Next comes a trial where some key information is held back, and this is followed by a heartbreaking miscarriage of justice.
A Fantasy Life of Musical Production Numbers
Miserable as Selma's life is, her love of musicals makes it possible for her to carry on. "In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens," she explains. Selma's shown rehearsing Sound of Music with an amateur theater group, and she and a friend (Catherine Deneuve) go to a movie theater that's playing the 1933 film 42nd Street. But what's really striking about Dancer in the Dark is how it occasionally shows Selma's mind slipping into a fantasy world where she casts herself in surreal, dreamlike musical production numbers. These numbers were written by Björk and her collaborators, and include "Smith & Wesson" and the Oscar-nominated "Ive Seen It All." Set against such unlikely backdrops as a factory floor, a train trestle, a courtroom, and a prison cell, the fantasy-world production numbers mix beauty and horror in a tour-de-force combination of cinema, music, and performance and have an unsettling feeling of underlying dread.
Visual Style of Musical Numbers Contrasts With That of Dramatic Scenes
Except for the musical numbers written specifically for this film, the scenes in Dancer in the Dark appear to be shot with a hand-held camera. The unsteady camera frequently pans between characters, giving the scenes an artless look that makes us feel as if were eavesdropping on the lives of strangers during their most emotionally vulnerable moments. On the other hand, the fantasy-world musical numbers seem to have been shot and edited using traditional Hollywood-type techniques. The contrast in style between the two kinds of sequences emphasizes the difference between the dreariness of Selmas real life and the vibrant world that exists only in her imagination.
In connection with issues of style in Dancer in the Dark, its interesting to note that Lars von Trier is a founding father of Dogma 95, a collective of filmmakers who have issued a manifesto along with a set of rules known as "The Vow of Chastity." The rules call for only hand-held cameras to be employed and all scenes to be shot on location using only naturally available lighting and sound. Dancer in the Dark doesn't follow these rules to the letter, but the spirit is still there.
A Brilliant, but Maddening Film
Von Trier has obviously gone out of his way to make Dancer in the Dark distinctly different from other movies, although parts of it remind me of the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by another Dane, Carl Dreyer. In my opinion, Dancer in the Dark is a brilliant but maddening film that's well worth seeing. And keep in mind that this recommendation comes from someone who had to take an Alka-Seltzer about an hour into her first viewing.