Dancer in the Dark


             You have to hand it to Danish director Lars von Trier. No matter what he
     does as a filmmaker, it is always intriguing and challenging to the audience.
     One of the men behind the Dogme 95 tenets of movie-making (a proposal that
     has recently come under fire as having been a hoax), von Trier experiments with
     various forms and styles to craft his individualistic view of the world. While he
     does have a penchant of late for focusing on naive, one might even say, childlike
     heroines, he creates a stunning world in which these women exist.
     
Dancer in the Dark, reportedly the third in an unofficial trilogy begun with
       Breaking the Waves, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it divided
     audiences -- they either cheered or booed -- and picked up top honors, including
     the Palme d'Or for von Trier and the Best Actress award for Bjork. It was also
     selected for the opening night slot for the 38th New York Film Festival where it
     proved to be a popular ticket and once again confounded some and delighted
     others.

             Dancer in the Dark serves as an homage to classic American movie musicals
     and an attempt to fashion a 21st-century version of such films. Von Trier's
     success -- or failure, depending on your point of view -- lies in the way he has
     captured the material by utilizing some 100 cameras placed at various spots
     around the set. The director allowed his actors to have freedom in their work
     by not constricting them or their movements and by encouraging them to trust
     their instincts. Abandoning the rehearsal process early in production, von Trier
     instead encouraged his cast -- headed by Icelandic singer Bjork, French diva
     Catherine Deneuve, Swedish actor Peter Stormare and American character
     actor David Morse -- to improvise while he operated the camera himself. He
     also takes great pains to delineate the musical sequences from the more
     mundane world of the characters. On the whole, he has crafted a hybrid,
     something that is gritty and "real" infused with the sentiment and fantasy of
     the great musicals. While von Trier falls into his usual trap of allowing some
     scenes to run on far too long (
Dancer in the Dark runs close to 2-½ hours)
     and including some extraneous footage, he also manages to elicit some
     extraordinary work from his multitalented cast.

             Much ink has already been spilled over reported clashes with his star, Bjork.
     Originally approached to write the film's score, she responded so intensely to the
     leading character of Selma Jezkovic, a Czech immigrant working in a factory in
     the American Northwest while trying to be a single parent to her preteen son,
     that von Trier insisted only she could play the role. Although she had limited
     acting experience, Bjork jumped at the chance to collaborate and finally agreed
     to portray his heroine. (""Every cell of me was literally Selma" is how she
     described the process.)

             First seen in rehearsals for an amateur production of
The Sound of Music
     Selma clearly has something wrong. Perhaps it's the thick lenses in her glasses
     that is the tip off, and indeed the audience comes to learn that she is suffering
     from a hereditary condition that will eventually leave her blind. Determined that
     her son will not suffer the same fate, she hoards every penny she can from her
     menial job, taking on extra work (in the form of assembling pins and needles
     in the holders to be sold at notion shops) and telling her friends that she is
     sending money home to Czechoslovakia to her father. In her spare time, she
     and her co-worker and best friend Kathy (Deneuve) go to the movies where
     Kathy describes in detail the scenes from the old musicals unspooling, much
     to the chagrin of the other patrons.

             The basic story of the film revolves around a situation arising after
     Selma's landlord and neighbor Bill (David Morse) confides his financial problems
     to her and then falsely accuses her of stealing from him. Her reactions set in
     motion a chain of events that ultimately ends in tragedy. Hardly the stuff of
     musicals, but that's the point. Although plot has never been Von Trier's strong
     suit, he is attempting to forge a new form of entertainment that marries
     melodrama with songs. There are numerous holes in the storyline which many
     of its detractors take enormous delight in detailing but to do so misses the
     intention. Von Trier is not re-creating a period (the film is set in the early 1960s)
     or a place (the Pacific Northwest) but rather is creating a mythical version of
     that filtered through the prism of cinema. While it is arguable just how
     successful he has been, he should not be faulted for taking a creative license

             If one examines the great musicals in American cinema history, the plot
     is often shaky at best. Indeed, with few exceptions (say,
Show Boat), even the
     Broadway shows of the 1930s and 40s were short on story. The key to the
     success of films like
Gold Diggers of 1933, Top Hat and The Band Wagon
     lay in the score and the choreography. The rest was just the mechanics on
     which to hang the musical numbers. In those crucial areas, however,
     
Dancer in the Dark is inconsistent. A couple of the numbers soar but all
     too often the prosaic lyrics (by von Trier with an assist by Icelandic poet
     Sjon Siggurdson) and Vince Paterson's uneven dance direction tend
     to sabotage the film's intent.                

             The result, then, is a noble attempt to push the envelope that doesn't
     quite achieve its lofty goals. The musical sequences represent Selma's inner
     world and the first few work well. While working the night shift at the factory,
     Selma begins to daydream. The percussive noises of the machines begin
     to coalesce and create music and suddenly she and her co-workers are dancing
     and singing. It is spine-tingling moment that possesses great promise. Von Trier
     shifts film stock and the colors take on a richer, deeper hue while his use of the
     multiple cameras hidden around the set allow for odd angles. For a brief
     moment, one sees into Selma's world and comes to understand her and her
     imaginative will. Even the second sequence, which involves a passing train
     and open fields (and in some ways is an "homage" to Robert Wise's screen
     version of
The Sound of Music) sparkles. But the next "number" involving the
     aftermath of a crime falls flat, although a courtroom sequence that allows
     veteran Oscar winner Joel Grey a chance to strut his stuff is vigorous and
     engaging.

             The success or failure of the film rests with Bjork and her portrayal of
     Selma. The camera clearly loves her and her dark, elfin beauty is captured
     well. In the early scenes, though, she is awkward and uncomfortable and her
     performance seems almost amateurish. One begins to cringe in dread of what
     is to come, but she grows on you. There is a spirit to her that eventually takes
     over and Selma emerges as a full-bodied characterization. A highly instinctual
     performer (by her own admission, she would be hard pressed to duplicate a
     scene exactly), Bjork dominates
Dancer in the Dark. Not that the other actors
     are slouches. Catherine Deneuve, who has matured into a fine actress, is
     terrific as Kathy. Peter Stormare brings a gentle quality to his shy suitor while
     Cara Seymour is memorable as Selma's mercenary landlady. David Morse
     once again proves he is one of the USA's best character players undertaking
     a vaguely sinister part of a police officer driven to desperate measures.
     Comedienne Siobhan Fallon offers a memorable turn as a sympathetic prison
     guard and Von Trier stalwarts like Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard and Jean-Marc
     Barr appear in small roles.

             One can admire the craftsmanship that went into
Dancer in the Dark,
     and revel in the performances and the occasional moments when the song and
     dance sequences take momentary flight. Undoubtedly the film will continue
     to spark heated debates, and perhaps that is its greatest achievement. After all,
     I'm hard pressed to recall the last movie musical that sparked debates about its
     artistic merits.



                             
Rating:                     B
                             
MPAA rating:             R for some violence
                             
Running time:           137 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.