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Critics have long been divided over whether Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is a calculating prankster, an artist of integrity, or a little of both. His latest creation, Dancer in the Dark, is unlikely to resolve the issue. Since abandoning the chilly, highly stylized mode of his early works (The Element Of Crime, Zentropa) for the tenets of Dogma 95, the gritty austerity movement he helped launch, von Trier has produced an oddball television serial (The Kingdom), a Dogma-compliant outrage (The Idiots, barely released in the United States), and what is widely regarded as a masterpiece, 1996’s Breaking the Waves. Even this latter work had its share of vocal detractors, with many (including this reviewer) finding it to be a dreary, pretentious slog. There was ample reason to believe his latest work would be more of the same. However, as if to prove just how difficult it is to pin this mercurial director down, Dancer in the Dark emerges as one of the most powerful and emotionally gripping movies of the year.
An audacious mix of handheld realism, downbeat melodrama and digital age musical, Dancer won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Best Actress award for pop star Bjork, who makes her first (and if recent press reports are to be believed, last) film appearance as von Trier’s tragic heroine, Selma. A Czechoslovakian immigrant residing in the Pacific Northwest of the early 1960’s, Selma is a factory worker by day, an aspiring star of the local musical theater scene in the evening, and a devoted single mother at night. Selma suffers from a genetic condition that is slowly causing her to go blind, and she knows that the same fate awaits her son unless she can save up enough cash to pay for the operation that will spare him.
The only ray of sunshine that gets Selma through her drab daily existence (rendered in the same washed-out shaky-cam palette as Breaking the Waves) is her love of Hollywood musicals. She has landed the role of Maria in the community theater’s production of The Sound of Music, despite the fact that her failing eyesight makes it increasingly difficult for her to meet her marks. She slips into daydreams as she is tending the dangerous factory machinery that presses sheet metal into kitchen sinks, and the rhythmic industrial clang of the workplace becomes the backbeat for the elaborate musical numbers that fuel her flights of fancy.
Von Trier shoots these interludes in digital video, with dozens of cameras set up around the perimeter of the set like surveillance tools. Their vibrant colors and surreal sharpness provide an obvious counterpoint to Selma’s daily life; it’s like Dorothy arriving in the land of Oz every time one of them begins. Yet these sequences certainly aren’t the giddy MGM pop explosions of old; they revolve around synchronized, choreographed movement that bears little relation to dancing as we know it, the lyrics jostle uneasily along melodic lines as if they’ve been composed by people writing in their second or third language (which they have), and they’re often sung in the cracked, tuneless voices of mere mortals (Peter Stormare and David Morse are among the unlikely vocalists). The director has gone way out on a limb here, and it pays off more often than not. A number that takes place on a train trestle, complete with hobo chorus, is utterly mesmerizing, and while not all of the musical bits are as successful (one involving a fresh corpse we’ve just seen dispatched in a graphically gruesome fashion invites nervous laughter), even the worst of them exerts at least a morbid fascination.
Selma’s landlord (Morse) is a local cop whose wife is spending money faster than he can earn it, and once he gets an eyeful of Selma’s hidden stash of cash, we know that the inevitable downward spiral of tragedy is underway. Von Trier milks the melodrama for all it’s worth, and as in Breaking the Waves, we may feel uncomfortable that so much of it revolves around a saintly woman-child meeting with an undeserved comeuppance. But Bjork’s intuitive performance is the glue that holds it all together and makes us willing to follow her to the bitter end. Though she is ably supported by Morse, Stormare and Catherine Deneuve as Selma’s long-suffering best friend, it is Bjork’s naked, yearning emotionalism that renders all questions of von Trier’s sincerity moot. She’s utterly heartbreaking, right through to the film’s final image, a bare-knuckled sucker punch that will linger in the memory for days. When it’s over, it’s a safe bet that no one will walk out of the theater feeling good. But more importantly – and what separates Dancer in the Dark from the rest of the dismal class of 2000 – no one will walk out feeling nothing at all.