#144 Dancer In The Dark

(2000, Lars Von Trier)

“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens”

Björk is a strange lady that’s been vaguely on most people’s radars since she made it big in the nineties. She’s most known for her unusual and quirky music style and distinct Icelandic accent more than anything else, so the fact that director Lars Von Trier felt she’d be the perfect lead for his new film in 2000 was a little strange. Was it a good decision? We’ll find out as we take a look at Dancer In The Dark.

Björk plays Selma, a Czech immigrant to the United States, who suffers a genetic degenerative disease that is causing her to steadily go blind. To prevent her son from suffering the same fate as her, she works long hours in a factory, and lives in a trailer on the property of a married couple, Bill and Linda Houston (David Morse & Cara Seymour). Her main way of staying sane is through her love of musicals, and frequently daydreams that she’s in one when times get hard, pushing the movie into some very surreal musical sequences.

On paper, I should have disliked this film. As noted several times, I dislike musical sequences in movies. On first glance, Von Trier’s low budget “Dogme-95” inspired aesthetic makes the movie seem like an awkward student movie project. What’s more, the lead actress isn’t an actress at all, she’s a singer. So why did I end up liking the film so much?

First off, those musical sequences? The major thing to note here is that Björk not only starred in the movie but she also wrote those musical sequences. Remember I said that she was known for a quirky, cross-genre music style? That applies here too. These are not your traditional musical numbers. For a start, much of the percussion for the tracks comes from the background of the scene that precedes each one. As an example, the first song features the persistent noise of industrial machines, while another features a train. This unusual percussion puts a sinister edge on almost every song in the movie; those industrial machines turn what would be a happy song-and-dance number into the sound of someone going manic while robots enslave humanity. Björk’s distinctive but odd singing style adds another level of surrealism.

The low budget filming style actually works to Dancer In The Dark’s advantage too. Due to the movie not being a very happy one, and the movie getting progressively darker throughout, the intimacy created by the hand-held cameras causes the movie to feel that much more real and harrowing. The movie becomes almost uncomfortable to watch at times, but this is a good thing, since Von Trier wants you to feel uncomfortable. The ending in particular is difficult to watch, employing as it does a sudden cut into Björk singing acapella (although to tell you why she’s cut off is a spoiler and I won’t be going any further into it)

What’s more, Björk is a surprisingly good actress. When Dancer In The Dark starts, it’s a little difficult to get past her strong accent and quirky demeanour, but over time, this passes and she plays the part surprisingly well, presenting an innocent, vulnerable and tragic individual with convincing emotion and power. She had actually stated that she’d never act again after making this movie due to how emotionally draining it was, and it’s obvious here, considering the bleakness of the role, and due to how much she seemingly threw herself into it.

Dancer In The Dark won me over in a big way. It’s a bleak film, but it’s powerful, and it gripped me for much of its runtime. The plot was constantly surprising and unexpected, and I was on the edge of my seat from around the halfway mark right up to the end. I was even won over by the soundtrack, despite not really liking Björk’s music in general. It just worked so perfectly that it added to the experience instead of hindering it.

That said, there are a couple of issues. The characters are fundamentally flawed people, and many of the decisions made in the movie were a little questionable. There is also a lot of excessive melodrama here, particularly in the event that completely changes the direction of Selma’s fate. I could also argue that the whole plot of her going blind seemed to be largely dropped halfway through and rarely mentioned again.

But overall, Dancer In The Dark was a surprisingly moving and effective drama which hooks you in with some smart directorial decisions and an excellent performance by someone not accustomed to acting, which is a feat in itself.

Starring Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Peter Stormare, Siobhan Fallon Hogan & Joel Grey
Written by Lars von Trier
Produced by Vibeke Windelov & Peter Aalbæk Jensen
Music by Bjork
Cinematography by Robby Muller
Edited by Francois Gedigier & Molly Marlene Stensgard

Favourite Scene: The last song, and its sudden cut-off. Incredibly powerful, although I doubt I can watch it again.
Scene That Bugged Me: It may have won an Oscar, but the whole “I’ve Seen It All” segment didn’t really grab me all that much.

Watch it if: You’re intrigued by Björk’s ability to act
Avoid it if: You cannot stand Björk in either her mannerisms or her music

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Posted on December 20, 2012, in 2000s, Drama, Musical and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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