Dancer In The Dark

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

Selma Jezkova (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant living in the Pacific Northwest where she supports herself and her ten year old son by working at a tool and die factory. She and her best friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) escape their dull lives by going to musicals and staging an amateur production of "The Sound of Music." However, Selma is slowly going blind and is frantically saving money to save her son from the hereditary condition. When that money is stolen, tragedy ensues in director Lars Von Trier's musical Cannes Palm d'Or winner, "Dancer in the Dark."

How you feel about this film may largely depend on how you felt about von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," another hand-held shot film about a woman who martyrs herself for a loved one. While more flawed that that film, "Dancer in the Dark" gets its audience more emotionally invested in its story.

While von Trier again portrays womanhood as martyrdom, a tendancy that is sure to exasperate his audience if repeated, his central character here doesn't go through the character arc that Emily Watson did in "Breaking the Waves." Selma is instead immediately established as a sacrificier. Not only is she going blind, but she must place metal plates into dangerous machinery where they are pressed into sinks. When she's not at work, she's engaged in the tedious labor of pinning cards on the side. She and her ten year old son Gene (Vladica Kostic, a symbolic character only, as his name headlines his weakness) live in a small trailer in the backyard of local cop Bill (David Morse, "The Green Mile") and his wife Linda (Cara Seymour, "American Psycho") who've become good friends of Selma's. However, it's Bill's inability to tell Linda that she's spending beyond their means that will result in Selma's ultimate tragedy.

Bjork's performance is a natural wonder. She may be no actress (and she claims she will never act again), but she embodies Selma and allows a charming, off-kilter humor to sneak through her sunny naivete. Peter Stormare gives the most moving turn as Jeff, a simple man who arrives at Selma's factory each day to offer her a lift home in his pickup truck even though she constantly rejects him (kindly). It's Stormare who takes up the arc of slowly discovering the buildup of tragedy which engulfs Selma and it's a terrific performance. Deneuve and her director accomplish the impossible by making Kathy believable as a factory worker. When (single and childless) Kathy's unflagging support of Selma ends in outrage at Selma's refusal to save herself, the baton is picked up by prison guard Brenda (Siobhan Fallon), a mother. Fallon is also terrific, having a similar effect as Stormare, syphoning our emotions as witness to Selma's fate.

Cara Seymour is effective as the pathetically 'high flying' wife, while David Morse's Bill gains our sympathy (and Selma's) as a decent guy with a relatively trivial problem, although his performance suffers in a pivotal scene.

Joel Grey has a small scene as Oldrich Novy, a Czeck Fred Astaire. Former von Trier stars Stellan Skarsgard ("Breaking the Waves") and Udo Kier ("The Kingdom") have cameos as optometrists.

Von Trier's camerawork, criticized by many, works completely for this reviewer. His washed out colors and shaky, hand held digital video work portray reality in a documentary-like (and Dogma 95 like) fashion. When the rhythm of machinery, a train on its tracks or marching feet cause Selma to segue into a musical interlude, the fantasy glows in bright colors and fluid camerawork (achieved by use of 100 cameras). Von Trier's collaberation with Bjork (and choreographer Vincent Paterson, "Evita") make the musical numbers transporting, particularly when Bjork declares 'I Have Seen It All' to Jeff (who's just realized the state of her eyesight) as she dances along a flatbed.

In von Trier's script, two scenes misfire. Maybe real life murders are every bit as sloppy as the one shown here, but Morse's acting evokes titters even as Selma's actions become more desparately violent. Kathy's last ditch communication with Selma, literally at the gallows, seems forced, in a scene which begins devastatingly but is allowed to go on too long. (Both this and the final scene recall Kieslowski's "A Short Film About Killing," although that film handled them expertly while this film stumbles over them.) Overall, though, this over-the-top melodrama, which by its nature should be laughable, works. Von Trier's vision may be maddening to some, but he's a unique and bold filmmaker.


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