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Denmark/Netherlands/Germany 2000
Directed by
Lars von Trier
140 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Dancer In The Dark

Synopsis: Czech-born Selma (Björk) emigrates to the U.S. so that her son, Gene, can have an operation to save his sight. Gene has inherited a degenerative eye condition from his mother, who is already going blind. Selma works long hours in a factory to save for the operation, hiding her failing vision and hoarding her earnings in their trailer home. Hollywood musicals help her escape the monotony of herlife but they can't protect her from tragedy.

In these days when art cinema usually means costume dramas with reassuringly high production values and seductively gorgeous pictorials, Dancer In The Dark is reminiscent of the adventurous days of French 1960s New Wave cinema in which directors self-consciously challenged and fore-grounded filmic conventions, demanding that their work be viewed as other than transparent representations of a supposedly true story, or in other words, making the viewer acutely aware of him or herself as a viewer.

Dogme founder von Trier mixes the dramatic narrative with musical numbers, uses low grade video transferred to film, intercuts different takes of the same scene, and seems to have encouraged a deliberately amateurish approach to the acting (which in Bjork's case would have taken little effort). All of which could have been terribly film-schoolish and dismissable if it were not that it comes together in a story of remarkable,, harrowing, emotional intensity. It has been a long time since I left a cinema so profoundly saddened.

But you need to be patient. At 140 minutes this is a long, long walk on which for probably the first hour nothing much happens at all and we see little but the routine existences of a sorry-assed lot of people in semi-rural Washington State. The central character, Selma, is almost maddening in her child-like simplicity, only outdone in this respect by her would-be boyfriend (Peter Stormare) who follows her around like a dog. Slowly things begin to change, the first musical number injects some vitality, and then the storyline spirals from the mundane to the tragic with alarming rapidity. Björk is quite remarkable in this latter stage and thoroughly deserves the Palme D'Or for Best Actress that she won for her performance, even if heavy emoting comes second nature to her in her musical life (she also wrote the music for this, with lyrics supplied by von Trier and Sjon Sigurdsson). Deneuve, who had been so impressed by the director's Breaking The Waves (1996) that she offered to work with him on a future project, is also excellent in what is a considerable departure from her stock standard persona as the haute bourgeois ice maiden. And keep an eye out for Joel Grey.

Dancer In The Dark
will never win any popularity contest and no doubt will polarize audiences. For me, love or hate it, I think von Trier has done an outstanding job of challenging expectations. My only outright criticism concerns the hand-held camera. For some reason professional film-makers who want to eschew mainstream production values feel compelled to exaggerate hand-held camera movement, whereas in reality amateurs would probably be trying to minimize it. This film is particularly trying in this respect, von Trier approach the parodic as the camera automatically follows anything that moves in the frame to the point that is sometimes annoying.




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