Dancer in the Dark
2000, R, 140 min. Directed by Lars Von Trier. Starring Björk, David Morse, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, Vincent Paterson, Joel Grey, Cara Seymour, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, Vladica Kostic.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 6, 2000
Danish upstart Lars von Trier snagged the Palme d'Or and Björk the Best Actress award at Cannes this year for this two-and-a-half hour slice of unmitigated depression, which just goes to show that the French still appreciate a really good emotional letdown over a Wayans Brothers film, a fact that buoys my spirits to no end. Von Trier, the man behind Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom, and the neo-realist movement Dogme 95 (which, among other rules, forbids the use of non-location shooting, Steadicam shots, and, although not specifically mentioned in its “Vow of Chastity,” good cheer) has made a career of mining the depths of human misery. Watching one of his films is a peculiarly depressing affair of late. There's rarely any uplift for his characters in their dark emotional descents, and by the time the final reel unspools you feel the need for a mental scrubbing via Jerry Lewis, or, at the least, Jacques Tati. It's rough stuff, and Dancer in the Dark may be his roughest of all, a bitter confection chock-full of rusty barbs and a woeful, inexorable slide into doom and worse. Set in Washington state in the mid-1960s, the titular dancer is Selma, a musical-loving factory worker played by pixie-esque Icelandic chanteuse Björk. The conceit here is that Selma is rapidly going blind from a degenerative ocular condition. It's too late for her, but she's frantically hoarding money to buy an operation for her young son Gene, who, although he is yet unaware of it, will face the same black fate later in life. Gene and Selma share a ramshackle double-wide rented to them by their neighbors, local cop Bill (Morse) and his spendthrift wife Jean (Seymour). One night, Bill, in a fit of desperation, confesses to Selma that he's broke, the bank is going to take his home, and there's nothing he can do about it. Selma, in turn, reveals her own secret, and the fact that she's saving up for Gene's operation. You can see what's coming, and when Selma's tin-can cash stash turns up missing, she confronts Bill, who promptly draws a gun on her. Things go from bad to worse with the sickeningly fluid speed of a nightmare from here on out, and von Trier shoves our noses in it every chance he gets. But wait! Did I mention Dancer in the Dark is also a musical? Never one to rest on his characters' sorrows when he can infuse them with the tangibly surreal, von Trier has Selma escaping her pitiful existence into flights of imaginative musical reveries straight from a Hollywood musical. The clank of a factory press becomes a leaden backbeat, the ka-chunk of a train passing becomes a steam-driven rhythm, and suddenly there's song, and dance, and, well, confusion. It's a novel idea, but von Trier's use of DV cameras (he reportedly used over a hundred simultaneously to capture the dance sequences -- it doesn't show) makes the bizarre musical interludes seem less giddy than gritty. Even in her dreams, poor Selma dances in the dust. Von Trier's film is undeniably powerful stuff, despite its antagonism. The film's unabashed sucker punch of an ending knocks the wind out of you even though you've seen it coming a mile away, and Björk is fine as the mousy Selma. Of course, having the legendary Catherine Deneuve along for the ride (as Selma's long-suffering friend) is a plus in any film, as is Peter Stormare's (Mr. Woodchipper in Fargo) bumpkin beau. Masterpiece or masturbation? With von Trier it's getting harder and harder to tell. I wonder if even he knows anymore.