Dancer in the Dark


To call this film a musical might send the wrong message – visions of Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire numbers dancing in filmgoers’ heads. This is not lighthearted fare, by any means. What it is, however, is a unique style of filmmaking worth seeing, although there’s no guarantee you’ll like it. I did, although I’ll admit it took a while before I warmed up to it. But at the end, I was able to proclaim it both powerful and unusual.

The film focuses on Selma (Icelandic actress/singer-composer Björk), a homely Czech immigrant to the United States in the 1960’s. Selma suffers from a genetic eye condition that will very soon leave her blind. She lives in a trailer that she rents from a local police officer (David Morse as Bill) somewhere in Washington State with her 12 year old son who has inherited her ailment. Although, handicapped by increasingly failing vision, Selma works double shifts at a metal press factory, scrimping and saving her money to pay for an operation to save her son’s sight. Her friend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) does all she can to help Selma hold her job and keep her safe at the same time, while another friend, Jeff (Peter Stormare), is silently in love with her.

In order to cope with her sad existence, Selma has a knack for hearing rhythms in the sounds of the factory or from the train tracks that send her reeling into elaborate daydreams of song and dance right out of an old-fashioned musical like the ones she “sees” at the local cinema and remembers from back home. When she springs into song whose lyrics reflect her situation and need at the moment, all around her, whether it’s factory or train workers, join in. It’s not only Selma’s pathetic self that comes vibrantly alive in these musical sequences but the texture of the film itself changes from a choppily edited and dull colored version into one filled with bright hues that’s expertly edited. It is this wonderful change that makes you realize you’re watching something special, that and Björk’s performance (voted Best Actress at Cannes). And if it were not for these musical interludes, you might wonder if the director knows what’s he’s doing. He does. What writer-director Lars Von Trier has given us, is on one hand a semi-documentary style of filmmaking shot in digital video, enmeshed with melodrama and tragedy and a classic studio style when it comes to the music.

The story takes a particularly bad turn when officer Bill, sorely in need of money to make his mortgage payments and meet his wife’s spending habits, steals Selma’s hidden cash. It results in Selma taking unexpected action leading to a harrowing ending.

The songs have an odd sound to them, lots of repetition but it’s all so well done that you probably won’t mind. Also features: Joel Grey as Oldrich Novy and Udo Kier as Dr. Portnoy.

Lotta says: Dancer in the Dark is a film that has entered new territory – one worth exploring.

Reviewed 1/24/01