Film enthusiasts really must see it. But be advised : the risks are great and the rewards are totally up in the air.
The film, written and directed by Lars Van Trier (Breaking the Waves), worked for me, but I have a feeling many of my friends would find it exasperating. I’m not even sure I can explain why I liked it as much as I did. Perhaps the answer lies in my inability to put it in a box or describe exactly what it is. (I can say, however, it is another example of the “dogma” style film-making—a “back to the basics” approach to film-making ascribed to by certain Danish filmmakers. Dogma films ban the use of artificial lighting, sound, and superficial action.)
Like a novel, this film is many different things. But, for me, the film’s greatness lies in its exploration of human despair, the loneliness of a single mother, and the human coping mechanism.
Dancer in the Dark is a curious tale, one that mixes overt melodrama and tragedy with chilling musical numbers. The result is a wild, unusual, daring, and at times thoroughly exhilarating sort of Shakespearean soap opera set to bizarre interpretive music from Björk, an Icelandic pop icon whose vocal abilities might be described as a strange blend of Slim Whitman, Jewel, and Alanis Morisette.
Björk’s shrill musical numbers are a troubling glimpse at the internal escapist fantasies experienced by the character she plays, Selma, a Czechoslavakian immigrant who is steadily losing her eyesight. Selma is fighting a losing battle with a hereditary eye disease that also promises to affect her young son some day. And so, Selma slaves away at a local factory and takes on odd jobs in hopes that she may one day purchase the miracle operation that will save her son’s sight. (Bring on the violins.) Her only joys in life are her son, her friendship with Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), and her time acting in musicals for the local theater group.
In order to cope with her somewhat hopeless existence, Selma ventures frequently into the world of imagination. Here, she walks through life as the star of a wonderful musical, like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Here, she vocalizes her dreams and her very real fears. Here, she taps her feet to the sounds of the factory machinery and the local railroad. Here, Selma has hope. And here, the film often finds true emotional depth, the sort of gritty realism one might briefly encounter at an amateur poetry reading.
Unfortunately, the real world and all of its problems cannot be ignored forever. Selma keeps the money she has been saving for her son inside a shoebox in her home, rather than in a bank. Her savings provide the means for the almost-unbearable drama that follows as Bill (David Morse), Selma’s overly-friendly neighbor, sees Selma’s savings as a means of resolving his own financial woes. Two desperate people and only one pot of gold. That spells almost certain doom.
The story here is not quite so important as the emotions the characters are feeling. That is good, for if viewed in isolation, the story, especially the ending, might be laughable. But we know what it is like to feel lonely like Selma, to feel desperately and miserably in love like Jeff (Peter Stormare), to feel strangled by finances like Bill, and to feel unable to help like Cathy. The music is crucial in helping us to identify these feelings.
Björk’s performance is truly one of the best of the year, and David Morse gives an Oscar-caliber performance, one of the creepiest characters you would ever want to meet. Peter Stormare also shines in a subtle, but moving role.
I make no promises about Dancer in the Dark. You may hate it. But I thought it was one of the best pictures of the year.