Year of Release: 2000
Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Joel Grey, Jean-Marc Barr, Siobhan Fallon, Vladica Kostic, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanec
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
“Dancer in the Dark” won the Palm D’Or at Cannes in 2000, and continued to prove that Lars Von Trier is a brilliant filmmaker, willing to expand frontiers of genres and reshape concepts and ideas.
“Dancer in the Dark” premiered in Cannes in 2000, with a lot of expectation surrounding it, mainly due to the fact that Lars Von Trier has a tradition of always bringing great films to the Croisette (“Breaking the Waves” won the Special Jury Award in 1996, and “Europa” also won special mentions in 1991). The film had had some previous publicity in the media, mainly due to the fact that acclaimed singer Bjork was the main actress in the film, and also because of reputed clashes between her and the director. The film ended up winning two top honors at the festival, namely the Palm D’Or and the best actress award for Bjork (whose song, “I’ve seen it All”, from the soundtrack, was nominated for the Oscar for best original song).
The film revolves around the story of Selma, a Czech immigrant factory worker. She sublets a small trailer in the yard of an American family, in rural America of the 50’s (when the witch hunting for communists was in full bloom, which is noticeable as the story unravels). Selma is going blind, due to a genetic condition, and she knows her son, Gene, will suffer the same destiny if he does not get a specific surgery. She works the long hours in the factory, plus night shifts and also other spare jobs, so she can save all the money possible, even though her sight does not allow her to work anymore. Her only escape is her love of musicals – in her few spare hours she is also training for the lead part of a local presentation of “The Sound of Music”, and although she can’t see anymore, she attends matinees for Busby Berkeley films with her friend Cathy (played by Catherine Deneuve). The drama starts to unveil the moment that Bill, the police officer and also Selma’s landlord, steals her saved money, and she ends up having to kill him, mostly due to his own pressure. It’s a downward spiral for Selma from that point on, with her arrest and trial.
Lars Von Trier has created with “Dancer in the Dark” a film that oscillates between a harsh reality, and one where the musical numbers give it almost an otherworldly feel (and it’s not a coincidence that Busby Berkeley films are mentioned). Filmed with digital video (by Robby Muller, who also shot “Breaking the Waves”) and choreographed by Vincent Patterson, the film intersects bleak moments where Selma is desperate (for instance during her trial), with glorious musical numbers, meant to represent her escape from reality (this fact is beautifully illustrated in the number “I’ve seen it All”, where we, the audience, come to terms to the fact that Selma has lost all her sight).
The film ends up succeeding in being more than just a traditional musical, and that is due to Lars Von Trier’s ability to film stories that require a leap of faith. The same way we had to believe in Emily Watson’s character (Bess) in “Breaking the Waves”, and her ultimate sacrifice, Selma’s character requires the same belief from us – all her hardship, all her pain, are meant to equally save someone. Bjork ends up being the soul of the film in more than one sense – her performance is so terribly heartfelt and painfully real, that you can’t help being moved – she embodies all that mothers stand for, and in the musical numbers, her voice and sheer presence shine through. Also responsible for the soundtrack (with the help of her usual collaborator, LFO’s Mark Bell), Bjork deservedly won praise and awards for the film. The rest of the supporting cast is equally top notch, from Catherine Deneuve (who crumbles her usual icy visage in the last moments of the film), to David Morse’s Bill (the police officer who has financial problems), Peter Stormare as the lovable Jeff and Cara Seymour’s Linda (the wife of Bill, who lives in the erroneous conviction that all is well in her household).
“Dancer in the Dark” is a film that ends up staying with you, not only for the sheer intensity and drama that presents to you, but above all because of the immense beauty and almost otherworldly moments that manages to put on screen – “just like a musical”.