Dancer in the Dark


Courtroom rock. Selma (Bjork) breaks into song and dance at the least provocation...
dir-scr Lars von Trier
with Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Vincent Paterson, Cara Seymour, Jean-Marc Barr, Vladica Kostic, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, Stellan Skarsgard
Zentropa 00/Denmark 4 out of 5 stars
Review by Rich Cline
Lars von Trier continues his assault on modern cinema with, of all things, a musical set in America. But Dancer in the Dark is unlike any musical you've ever seen; it's clearly a von Trier film (see also Breaking the Waves, The Idiots), complete with handheld camera work, washed out colours and a general otherworldly sensibility that's utterly mesmerising. But this is nothing like the movie musicals that dance in the protagonist's head, in which "nothing dreadful happens."

Selma (Bjork, who also composed the music in her own inimitable style) is a single mother, a Czech immigrant in the USA working tough blue-collar jobs to save up for her son Gene's (Kostic) operation. He has the same degenerative eye condition she has, but while she's nearly blind, he can be cured with an operation before he gets too old. Selma is keeping all this from her friends--her kindly landlord (Morse) and his wife (Seymour), a compassionate coworker (Deneuve), a suitor (Stormare) and her drama teacher (Paterson). Then events start to twist, Selma's blindness gets much worse, and the inner musical life she leads starts bursting out in increasingly colourful fantasies, while her devotion to her son develops the potential to undo her.

From the opening overture (accompanied by a black screen) we know not to expect a traditional musical. And from the story's beginning, we're put off by von Trier's handheld camera work, offbeat characters and a general feeling of slightly stilted improv. Then it slowly comes to life around us, punctuated by the much more slickly produced musical dance numbers, which are astonishing. Bjork's performance becomes deeply moving--and continues to deepen right to the heart-stopping final scene. The other actors are equally compelling (watch for Grey's terrific cameo, tap-dancing across the screen with real glee!), lifting the simple story into something profoundly moving, with a sharp vein of real life grittiness and humour running through it. In the end, von Trier says some very powerful things about the American dream without being too preachy. And all of the haunting, energetic, beautiful, sometimes horrific stuff that has gone before makes sure it will resonate long after we leave the cinema.

Winner: Palme d'Or, Best Actress Bjork (Cannes 00); Best Film, Best Actress Bjork, People's Choice Director, People's Choice Actress Bjork (European Film Awards 00).

[15--themes, violence]
UK release 15.Sep.00; US release 6.Oct.00

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2000 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall