Director Lars von Trier (Breaking The Waves) delivers a provocative mix of drama and musical theater in this acclaimed movie that won both the Palme d’Or for Best Picture and the Best Female Performance award (for lead actress Bjork) at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
Recording star Bjork is miraculous as Selma, a factory worker in rural America and single mother who is losing her eyesight from a hereditary disease. Determined to protect her 10-year-old son from the same fate, Selma is saving her money to get him an operation.
In the evenings, Selma escapes into a world where “nothing dreadful ever happens,” rehearsing for a production of The Sound of Music with her best friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve, Academy Award nominee for Indochine). But when a neighbor (David Morse, Proof of Life, The Green Mile, The Negotiator) betrays her trust, Selma spirals out of control. The lines between reality and fantasy blur, and Selma begins to believe that her life has actually become a Hollywood musical – as she inexorably heads toward the film’s unforgettable finale. Co-starring Joel Grey (Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor in Cabaret) and featuring original music by Bjork.
eyelights: the unconventional music. the unconventional plot.
eyesores: the vocal harmonies. the contrived plot development.
“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.”
‘Dancer in the Dark’ is a multiple award-winning musical by Lars von Trier, director of such laughfests as ‘Melancholia‘ and ‘Antichrist’. It made quite splash at the time, and was particularly noticed when its eccentric star, Björk, was ridiculed by just about everyone for her swan dress at the following Academy Awards.
I had long been told that I should see it and, as a HUGE fan of Björk’s, I very well should have. But it’s a musical, and even Björk can’t make me get over that fact. I picked up the soundtrack to the picture, which was composed by her, and I eventually even bought the DVD, but it took me just about everything to get around to it.
I’m happy to say that it is as worth seeing as I’d been told.
What makes ‘Dancer in the Dark’ stand out from other musicals (I was about to write peers, but this is pretty much peerless), are its unconventional story, its unconventional approach to musicals and its unconventional music. It’s the perfect bridge between artsy and accessible because it uses traditional storytelling and then enhances it.
Our story tells the tale of Selma, a Czech immigrant working in the United States to make enough money to pay for her son’s eye operation. He is not yet aware of his condition, as she has kept it from him and from everyone else. But she works double-duty to save up enough to be ready for his thirteenth birthday, after which he can go under the knife.
What is complicating matters for her is that her own condition is getting worse – to the point that she can no longer see clearly more than a few feet beyond her. She is too proud to tell anyone, and only a few close friends guess at this. Very soon, she will be completely blind, with no hope of regaining her sight – and she only has enough money for one operation.
To make matters worse, she is easily distracted. A fan of musicals, she hears music everywhere in everyday life. This feeds her imagination, but she tends to daydream on the job at the factory, causing accidents that aren’t just dangerous but that are very costly to her employers. Still, despite herself, she can’t help but to fall into these fantasies.
These fantasies are the musical numbers. Like Roxie in ‘Chicago‘, this is her alternate take on the world, with brighter colours, people dancing – and her at the center of it, singing with all of her heart. This is the closest that she’ll come to being in a musical, because she’s struggling with her part as Maria in a local production of ‘The Sound of Music’.
What’s great is that ‘Dancer int he Dark’ takes its time to establish the characters and the plot before throwing into the musical portions of the film: the first number doesn’t appear until the 40-minute mark. That’s an incredibly amount of restraint in a genre that is usually the antithesis of restraint – it’s about letting go, about extravagance.
But this isn’t your usual musical: it was, after all, made by Lars von Trier. von Trier always likes to traipse on the dark side of humanity, and he does so here as well. He takes our protagonist into the dark but rendering her blind, but also by having her betrayed by a close friend and by pushing her devotion to her son to its limits.
It is not a pretty picture. It is not ‘The Sound of Music‘: redemption is well beyond the Alps.
And that’s part of what anchors the film: it’s how gritty and realistic it tries to be. After all, life doesn’t always work out the way we plan it, and musicals frequently tend to forget that because they want us to forget – they want us to escape for a couple of hours and forget the burdens that weigh us down daily. They want to be a fantasy.
‘Dancer in the Dark’ doesn’t, but it fails in that its plot development is not always logical:
- the incident with Bill could easily be avoided, and even fear couldn’t justify Selma’s reaction. It would have been easy to walk away and involve the authorities. A little digging would have proven Selma right.
- I couldn’t believe that no one (the authorities, the lawyers) consulted Selma’s friends about her blindness, easily proving what she was claiming.
- I couldn’t believe that no one bothered to look at Bill’s finances, discovering that he was in deep trouble despite appearances. In fact, just having to get and pay a lawyer should have shown that he had limited funds left.
All of this is blamed on a poor defense lawyer – as though it were just up to him, as though no other investigation was made. Conveniently, the lawyer was purposely left off screen, and no cross-examination on his part was seen in the court scenes. This was a lazy way for the filmmakers to avoid dotting the Is and crossing the Ts: this way they could casually blame it on him.
There was also the matters of the prison guard who befriends Selma and becomes so fond of her that she even interferes. Seriously? They would have such unprofessional people in place? And what about Catherine Deneuve being able to scramble into what should have been a secure area? Don’t prisons have guards and locked doors? You’d think so.
Until then, however, ‘Dancer in the Dark’ was quite excellent. The musical numbers are terrific because they were so creative. The first one, for instance, has her hearing music in the rhythm of the factory machinery, and in its various noises. It all morphs to create a soundtrack to which three dozens dancers perform. It’s something to behold.
The musical number for “I’ve Seen it All” was also amazing to see, taking place on a moving train, in a picturesque setting. But it would be all for naught if the songs didn’t work. And, although they’re completely untraditional, avant-guardist, even, they do work – but mostly because they’re such interesting soundscapes. The vocal harmonies, sadly, are weak.
The musical performances were all pretty good – especially given that this was made on a low budget and by a director not used to making musicals. It could have been a disaster. There were purportedly some onset problems, but the film turned out okay; I was quite impressed with the imaginative ways in which they expressed Selma’s musical fantasies.
As for the acting, it’s hard to say. It all seemed very solid, and Björk was nominated (and won) numerous awards for her performance. But it’s actually hard to determine how good she is because each scene is composed of so many cuts that you can never see a complete performance – it could be a pastiche of all the best bits out of a whole bunch of horrible takes. Who knows.
What’s amazing to see is just how little concern the filmmakers had for continuity. Usually, in editing, one tries to use takes that are similar so that they can flow together seamlessly. Here, it wouldn’t matter one bit: you could tell that the cuts were from completely different takes – if only because the hair was totally different.
There is also the matter of the passage of time, which is poorly reflected in the film. Is it a script issue, or an editing issue? I don’t know, but we have no sense of how long it takes from the start of the film to its end. And yet, so much transpires in between. Surely months, full seasons, maybe even years had passed. But we’ll never know.
And yet, despite these relatively significant issues, ‘Dancer in the Dark’ holds up. It was refreshing to see a musical that didn’t conform to the norms inherent to the genre. And doing it in a unique way: it wasn’t just flouting the rules for flouting’s sake – it was broadening its scope, reaching out beyond the confines of what is deemed acceptable.
I would have to say that I’m a fan of this film. It could benefit from a few script revisions in its latter half, but it was engrossing and entertaining at the same time. Plus which it gave me the chance to see Björk in a very different context than as a musician and video artist. It’s a dark dance, this picture, but I’ll watch it again I’m sure.
Date of viewing: May 9, 2014