Houston Chronicle

Dancer In The Dark

Selma loves musicals. She spends her spare time at the movies watching them. She hears music in the
bumps and grinds of machinery at the factory where she works.

Selma is going blind. She lives inside the music in her head.

Dancer in the Dark is a sad, lovely, profoundly moving film. It sweeps from operatic highs tinged with
melancholy to drama so brutal and stark it breaks your heart.

Despite her blindness, Selma is rehearsing to appear in an amateur production of The Sound of Music. “I
think she sings funny,” a producer grouses, “and her dancing’s not all that great either.”

Played by Icelandic pop singer Björk, Selma tries to keep it a secret when she reaches the point that she
can no longer see. Her friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), looks after her at work as best she can. She sits
with Selma at the movies and describes what is happening.

Selma has been saving money for an operation to keep her son from growing sightless by the same
hereditary disease. The money disappears. Things turn tragic when Selma confronts a friend, played by
David Morse, to get it back.

The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier wrote and directed this stunning movie, which is set in a small
community in Washington state. It is filled with echoes of his earlier, powerful Breaking the Waves.

Both films are imbued with the notion of blood sacrifice. Like the slow-witted newlywed played by Emily
Watson in the earlier movie, Selma is an innocent, though of a different sort. The Watson character found
transcendence, and a miracle, in God. For Selma, the miracle is that she is even capable of transcending
the hardships of her life ; she finds this transcendence through music and dance.

And Björk, like Watson, delivers a performance so powerful and primal that it is impossible to tell from
the evidence offered whether she is acting or channeling. Björk was awarded the best actress award at
the Cannes Film Festival, which also awarded the film the Golden Palm.

Von Trier employs hand-held cameras and natural lighting and settings to achieve in his movies a
documentary feel that is heightened by the raw realism he elicits from actors. In Dancer, his rough-hewn
approach slams up against the unavoidable artificiality of the musical form. The collision is jarring, yet it
is also courageous and brilliant.

“I don’t understand musicals,” one of the characters says to Selma. He is Jeff, a simple-minded neighbor
who is smitten with her. “Why do they start to sing and dance all of a sudden ? I mean, I don’t start to sing
and dance.”

The singing and dancing in this movie all occurs in Selma’s head, so they require no suspension of disbelief
on the part of the audience. Still, it’s disconcerting—and funny—when she goes into a reverie beside the railroad track, and workers begin dancing with their hammers and saws. Or when a courtroom, at the
most tense moment imaginable, bursts into song, and the witness and tough prosecutor start to dance
like Fred Astaire.

Selma is an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who came, chasing a dream, to an America she’d known only
from the movies. “I used to dream that I lived in a musical,” she says at one point, “because in a musical
nothing dreadful happens.”

Much that is dreadful happens in Dancer in the Dark as Selma’s dream turns to dust. The emotional
complexity of the characters and events are unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a movie musical. For all
of its playing with conventions, the film is animated by the contradictions and horrors of real life.

Eric Harrison

publié dans Houston Chronicle - 26.03.2004

 

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