Film Monthly

Dancer In The Dark

Singer Björk shines in this dark and powerful musical drama.

About halfway through Dancer In the Dark, director Lars Von Trier’s award winning
musical, one thing becomes abundantly clear. Like Titanic or Pearl Harbor, the ending
ain’t gonna be happy. At a key point the lead character Selma, played by Icelandic
electro-pop music sensation, Björk, confesses to a friend her love of a certain type of
movie. “In the musicals,” she says, “nothing dreadful ever happens.” In many ways
Dancer In the Dark is a simple, albeit sadistic, attempt to upend that age-old convention.

With the exception of the musical numbers, Dancer In the Dark was shot exclusively
with hand held cameras. Some have found the movie insufferable for this reason
alone (think home movies shot by an eight year old, or The Blair Witch Project) ; it can get dizzying, the urge to grab the screen and steady it is very strong. The theater I saw the film in posted
signs warning patrons prone to motion sickness that they may become ill. But if a little “rough around
the edges” look doesn’t bother you, by all means proceed. As it turns out, the amateurish and improvised
feel of the production only serve to mask the deliberate machinations of a remarkable and wholly unique
film.

The story is unapologetic, over-the-top melodrama. Selma is a Czech immigrant to the United States who
has a disease that is causing her to go blind. Her son suffers from the same disease, and will also go blind
without a very expensive operation. She has saved most of the money when an act of betrayal by a friend
sends her on a path to destruction.

A chain of events, which can only be described as an emotional steamroller, is begun. Slowly, irreversibly,
the film progresses in the only course open to it, determined to crush both character and audience alike.
Unflinchingly, Lars Von Trier’s camera documents the trauma. Selma gives,
as explanation for her actions during crucial moments, the phrase “I listen
to my heart,” and Dancer In the Dark is merciless in its exaggerated depiction
of where following such a naively romantic philosophy gets you. Indeed it
often seems its only point. An interesting thing occurs, however, which
prevents the film from entering the realm of shallowness and outright
cruelty it flirts with : Björk’s performance.

Rumors of horrible clashes between director and star, Björk’s vow to never act again, Palme D’Or and Best
Actress at Cannes—it would be easy to dismiss it all as hype if it were not for an extraordinary performance
at the center of an ambitious film. Björk doesn’t perform or act so much as strip to a state of frightening
honesty and allow us to witness her exploration of some devastatingly raw emotions. None of which rang
false to me given the circumstances created by the film. The anguish is real, so real that it arguably
subverts an already subversive film.

Dancer In the Dark exists only to punish Selma for her romantic folly, her “I
listen to my heart” ethos. But Björk refuses to be subjugated to the will of
the film. The strength of her performance becomes convincing testimony
as to the power of the heart. It becomes nearly impossible to think Selma
the ridiculous character the movie wishes us to believe she is. The
consequence is a philosophical schism at the center of the film due to the profound difference in sensibilities at work. Usually something to be avoided, in this rare instance two
diametrically opposed forces—that of the film itself in its construction and that of Björk’s portrayal of the
central character—develop together, are set on a collision course with one another, and result in a glorious
new life being breathed into the film, independent of its intentions. A timeless argument seems to be
taking place in the very marrow of the film.

Dancer In the Dark is powerful, ambiguous, bold in its defiance of both
conventions and interpretation, and it is a musical. How can you discuss
a musical without mention of the music ? If you are familiar with Björk’s
musical work already, nothing here is likely to change your opinion. It is patently Björk. If that phrase is meaningless in your life, let me say this. Unlike most musicals, where
music comes from nowhere and songs just kind of happen whenever someone starts singing, the songs in
Dancer In the Dark are rooted very much in the real world of the film, though they take place exclusively in Selma’s head. They stem from natural sounds.

The buzz, clank and whirr of
machinery in the factory, the chug of a locomotive, the sound of marching,
all provide leaping off points and industrial percussive backdrops to the
music that plays out in Selma’s imagination. Sometimes a jubilant
cacophony of sounds, sometimes a soaring profession of love or a dark cloud
of grief, all the songs are marked by one of the most unique and talented
voices in modern popular music.

Steve Smith

publié dans Film Monthly - 02.10.2002

 

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