Björk hits an ethereal note as a day-dreaming martyr
Brian D. Johnson
Dancer In The Dark Directed by Lars von Trier
Though shot in English and set in
rural America, Dancer in the Dark is a foreign film, exotically foreign on every level. Its star is Björk, the otherworldly singer-sprite from Iceland, who plays a Czech immigrant in Washington state circa 1964. And its writer-director is Denmark’s Lars von Trier, who has never set foot in the United States because he refuses to fly, but who has conjured his own private vision of America on location in Sweden.
Moody, melodramatic and coyly subversive, von Trier is the Hamlet of world cinema, confounding critics at every turn with his antic disposition as they debate whether he is a genius or a fraud. When Dancer in the Dark premièred at Cannes last May, winning the Palme D’Or, it polarized the audience, which erupted with an indecipherable storm of cheers and catcalls. This is a tough fdm that is both exasperating and emotionally draining. It is also a work of thrilling originality, right from the opening images: in lieu of credits, an overture plays over a series of morphed paintings. What follows is a movie of spliced genres—from musical tragedy to documentary melodrama—that is quite unlike anything else, outside of von Trier’s own work.
Like his Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark is the story of a female martyr, a saintly naïf who sacrifices herself for a loved one. And like Emily Watson’s Bess, Selma (Björk) hears things, not the voice of God, but ambi-
ent sounds: the lock-step rhythm of machines on the assembly line where she stamps sinks out of sheet metal, the iron downbeat of a freight train brushing by her on a bridge, the pencil scratch of a courtroom artist as she stands trial for murder. In these slips of sound, Selma falls into musical reverie, and the movie’s grim realism gives way to song-anddance daydreams.
To look at the bare bones of the narrative, it’s a shabby affair with a soap-opera premise. Selma, a single mother who lives
in a rented trailer, is going blind from a disease that her son will inherit. Working overtime, she stashes her wages in a biscuit tin, saving for an operation to save his sight. On the factory floor, as she handles heavy equipment with dimming vision, Selma is an industrial accident waiting to happen. But tragedy strikes closer to home as her landlord (Dave Morse), a distraught cop who lives next door, takes advantage of her.
Selma is surrounded by an odd coterie of protective friends, including a coworker incongruously played by Catherine Deneuve (Chanel goes blue collar), a benevolent shop foreman (Jean-Marc Barr) and a bashful admirer (Peter Stormare, the wood-chipper psychopath in Fargo)—one weird bunch of Yanks. But then von Trier’s America is a country of his own creation, as far from the real
thing as an Ingmar Bergman island.
Dancer in the Dark strays from the documentary stoicism of the Dogma manifesto drawn up by Danish filmmakers—it indulges in props, effects and overdubbed music. But the dramatic sequences are still shot in a handheld, vérité style, with much of the colour leached out. So when the first musical interlude occurs, 40 minutes into the movie, the transition is exhilarating. At the factory, as Selma listens to her machine stamping out kitchen sinks (literal kitchen-sink realism), she drifts into a musical daydream. Suddenly, the colours bloom as the workers fly into choreography on the factory floor.
Shot on video with 100 fixed cameras, the musical sequences have a rich digital grain, and as von Trier toggles between the surreal and the hyper-real, he creates a powerful resonance. At the heart of it, like a human tuning fork, is Björk, who seems equally at home in both worlds. In song, her voice is ethereal and dissonant, the sound of a child thinking; as an actor, she does not appear to be acting, but living the part, finger painting with raw emotion. She is a compelling bundle of vulnerability, whimsy and fear. Her nails are bitten to the quick. Her eyes, pinned to some invisible horizon, sparkle with an eerie truth.
The movie ends on a harrowing note, an ending that is as shocking as it is inevitable. “In a musical nothing dreadful ever happens,” observes Selma, who is rehearsing a role in an amateur production of The Sound of Music. But Dancer in the Dark is not that kind of musical. It does not send you singing into the street. You walk out of the dark feeling stunned and hollow. Outside, however, the world seems sharper, more real—popped into focus like one of those musical numbers in the film. Briefly, the human condition appears to dance, as if you are seeing it with new eyes. And as the images keep flooding back days later, you wonder if this is a movie about vision that might actually improve it. EE]
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