[box cover]

Dancer in the Dark

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Björk, David Morse, Catherine Deneuve,
and Peter Stormare

Written and directed by Lars Von Trier


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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    


Love him and hate him, Lars Von Trier is the most skillful provocateur working in film today. Settling in comfortably alongside groundbreaking cinematic instigators Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, the Danish filmmaker is a master of aesthetic, emotional, and cognitive dissonance. Although his films are often grim and vastly disturbing, you can almost imagine Von Trier giggling in delight as he cruelly manipulates his audience.

Dancer in the Dark is Von Trier's infuriating and exhilarating Palm d'Or-winning musical spectacle, which, like his breakthrough feature Breaking the Waves, is about another innocent woman-child faithfully pursuing tragic ends.

Icelandic pop queen Björk gives a simply astounding performance as Selma, a pea-brained Czech immigrant to Washington state in 1964. Her life is simple and dreary — she lives in a rented trailer with her son, works days at a factory, and diligently pursues extra income at night by performing dull menial chores. She is also nearly blind, by heredity, but manages to conceal her condition to keep working, thus posing a great threat to herself and her fellow factory workers.

Yet, Selma is full of spirit. Her life is single-mindedly guided by a serious — though secretive — purpose, and, lest the dismal nature of her existence bring her down, she finds escape in the fantasy of golden-era Hollywood musicals.

Without giving too much away, it's fair to say that, true to the nature of the dramatic photoplay, Selma's plans are disrupted by a few unforeseen obstacles. That some of these obstacles are borne out of sheer and excruciating idiocy and beg for the application of ration and logic is part of Von Trier's dubious brilliance. He'll have you gnashing your teeth and cursing his name in one frame and have you weeping in wonder at the next.

Quite intentionally, Dancer in the Dark is a thorough exercise in aesthetic and narrative contradiction. Von Trier attempted — he admits with some failure — to film this feature according to the revolutionary ethos of Dogme 95, a collective of four Danish filmmakers including Von Trier, who in 1995 decided to attempt making films stripped of artifice. To qualify for Dogme 95 certification, a film must meet the criteria dictated by the collective's Vow of Chastity, which demands, amongst other regulations, the films must be shot hand-held, on location, without special lighting, and undisturbed by special effects. Some of the films made under these guidelines include the excellent 1998 Danish film The Celebration, repugnant Harmony Korine's Julien Donkeyboy, Von Trier's heavily banned The Idiots, and the Argentine classic Fuckland.

Although, Dancer in the Dark falls short of Dogme 95's total vision (it is not accredited), it draws great influence from the philosophy in its rough, immediate style, largely filmed by hand-held digital video cameras. The film's most obvious aesthetic contradiction is the inclusion in this approach of large musical and dance numbers as Selma slips into her fantasy life. To add further conflict, even though Selma is enamored of feel-good Hollywood musicals, in her own daydreams the musical numbers she performs more closely resemble the dark avant-techno-pop musical style of, well, Björk. It's a jarring inconsistency in character — not to mention an anachronism — but Von Trier sells it with more success than failure, mostly through the power of the emotional presence of Selma.

Where Dancer in the Dark runs into most danger of derailing is in Von Trier's dastardly narrative manipulation, which throws logic, motivation and credibility out the window for the sake of emotional response. Von Trier coyly and coldly and without reason stacks his final act against our heroine, and were it not so movingly presented, there could well have been a violent uprising against the visionary behind it. In reflection, Von Trier's climactic device is maddening and infuriating, but in the moment it is maddening and sublime. And the same goes for subsequent viewings.

Von Trier and his devilish trickery aside, Björk is simply wondrous. Despite playing an incorrigible numbwit, her Selma glows with life, integrity, and purity, even at her most stubborn, stupid, and downright retardedly self-destructive. She brings an empathy to her character that is rarely seen and emotes so naturally on camera that Julia Roberts' boobyshaking grin fades into Björk's life-affirming shadow. It is reported that she had such a difficult time working with Von Trier that, despite winning the Best Actress award at Cannes, she has sworn off acting. In a way that's heartbreaking, she is such a revelation. But, just the same, it also feels perfect that she be Selma and no other.

The supporting cast is very good, from Catherine Deneuve as Selma's protective friend, David Morse as her conflicted landlord, and Peter Stormare, in a change from his usual Satanic sociopath role, as Selma's hapless suitor.

New Line's Dancer in the Dark is beautifully presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround, although the layer change is a bit poorly placed. The disc includes a fascinating commentary track by the funny and analytical Von Trier, along with producer Vibeke Windeløv and other crew, and dance sequence commentary by choreographer Vincent Patterson. Also included are two documentaries — one about the dance sequences, the other about Von Trier's attempts to film each musical number live with 100 video cameras, that snarky bastard. Also on board are alternate scenes and song-by-song access to the film.

— Gregory P. Dorr



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