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Dancer in the Dark   C-

Fine Line Features

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cast: Bjrk, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse, Jean-Marc Barr, Joel Grey, Udo Kier.

Review by Rob Vaux

The most controversial entry at this year's Cannes Film Festival has finally landed in America. Dancer in the Dark, a bleak "industrial musical" starring Icelandic singer Bjrk, brings with it a tide of film geek argument grist that's not likely to fade any time soon. Why? For starters it was directed by Dutch agent provocateur Lars von Trier, who co-founded the Dogma 95 treatise of a few years ago (Dogma 95 rejects conventional Hollywood-style filmmaking in favor of a grittier, more "realistic" approach to its subjects). Second and perhaps more importantly, while it has moments of genuine artistry, it ultimately comes across as more irritating than moving.

Von Trier makes it clear from the beginning that he is not interested in filmmaking as usual. Dancer in the Dark is shot entirely in hand-held documentary style (save the musical numbers, which resort to grainy digital video), and renders the action as spontaneous and naturalistic as possible. Von Trier saddles this pseudo-verité technique with an impossibly melodramatic story: Selma (Bjrk), a Czech immigrant working in a rural Washington machine shop, is trying desperately to save money for an operation that will give her son sight. Though desperately poor, she remains cheerful -- imagining herself in musicals to escape the drudgery of her life. This saintly heroine suffers the trials of Job as the film progresses. She loses her job, her son has no respect for her, and her policeman landlord Norman (David Morse) steals her savings and forces her to kill him (don't ask). While her pathetic suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare, most famous for shoving Steve Buscemi into a wood-chipper) and her best friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve, looking like she wandered in from a car wreck) watch helplessly, the wheels of justice grind poor Selma to dust, leaving no hoary courtroom cliché unturned. All the while her sight grows dimmer and dimmer, but she soldiers on, knowing that her son's operation is all that matters.

While not uninteresting, Dancer in the Dark never seems clear exactly what it's trying to say. There are some genuinely moving moments -- Norman's death scene, for instance, or the rapport between Selma and her prison guard -- but they never add up to a satisfying whole. Most of the movie wallows in contrivances, and the melodrama comes so thick at points that you can cut it with a knife. Presumably, that's the point: von Trier and his colleagues are attempting to point out how hollow Hollywood conventions are. But to what end? His jittery camera work suggests some sort of gritty reality which clearly doesn't exist here, and the turgid soap opera of a plot reveals little of the human truths he presumably wants to uncover. Self-aware shabby artifice is still shabby artifice, and the director doesn't have anything to offer in place of the slick professionalism he decries.

Bjrk, at least, comes across well, with a beatific smile and a natural charm that immediately endears her to you. Her performance earned the Best Actress Prize as Cannes, and it's not hard to see why. She also composed some wonderful music for the film, using atonal machinery and other noises to create a perfect gothic atmosphere. Pity that the lyrics -- written by von Trier -- upend the gorgeous sounds beneath them and that the leaden musical numbers fail to capitalize on Bjrk's marvelous work. The film makes a great deal of Selma's love for musicals, but betrays a contempt for the genre both by the appallingly amateur production of The Sound of Music that she is involved in, and by its own ineptly choreographed dance sequences.

Dancer in the Dark has more than its share of defenders, and the controversy surrounding it has invigorated the debate on film's direction as an art form. That doesn't make it any easier to sit through, or any more valid as a form of art itself. If you need material for a good argument, give Dancer in the Dark a look. If you want to see a good film, you had better look elsewhere.

Review published 10.14.2000.

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