Dancer In The Dark

on September 22, 2000 by Lael Loewenstein
   No film divided critics and audiences at Cannes like Lars von Trier's quasi-musical "Dancer in the Dark." Raw and invigorating when its risks succeed and disconcertingly flat when they fail, "Dancer" is neither the masterwork its proponents raved about nor the disaster its critics insisted it is. Still, "Dancer" waltzed off with the Palme d'Or as well as acting honors for Icelandic singer-composer Björk.

   "Dancer's" troubled production was almost as big a story as the film's divisive critical reception. It was no secret that Björk, making her feature acting debut, was so emotionally overwrought by von Trier's demands that she stormed off the set for several days and threatened to derail the production. Though star and director evinced the beginnings of a rapprochement at the awards ceremony, the tension between them during the shoot was apparently responsible for eliciting Björk's authentic performance.

   Set in Washington state in the early 1960s, the story centers on sweet, naive factory worker and Czech immigrant Selma (Björk). Hiding behind Coke-bottle glasses, Selma, unbeknownst to everyone including her best friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), is slowly going blind. Privately, Selma has managed to save almost $2,000 towards an operation for her adolescent son Gene (Vladica Kostic), who has inherited the genetic defect. When Selma's friend and landlord Bill (David Morse), a local policeman, reveals that his wife's penchant for shopping is driving him to bankruptcy, Selma, in a compassionate gesture, confesses her secret.

   After her money disappears, Selma confronts Bill, who at first denies, then admits to having taken it. Refusing to return the cash, Bill aims his gun at Selma, but when the struggle between them escalates and the gun misfires, Bill is left dying on the floor. Far and away the film's best scene, Bill and Selma's confrontation builds to an exquisite crescendo of guilt, betrayal, and fatalistic despair, and it sets into irrevocable motion the story's climactic sequence.

   Von Trier punctuates his film with surreal musical numbers in which Björk and others sing and dance their way through various sequences--including, oddly enough, a post-mortem to Bill's murder, in which the cop has been resurrected. With music composed by Björk and lyrics by von Trier, these songs don't work as traditional musical numbers: They neither advance the action nor particularly help to elucidate character. Instead, they function as reveries, musical escapes from the painful reality of Selma's life. Reportedly shot with as many as a hundred digital video cameras, the musical sequences are fascinating feats of editing and camerawork, but their cumulative contribution is minimal. Somewhat more successful are the supporting players, including Deneuve and Peter Stormare as Selma's would-be suitor.    Starring Björk, Catherine Deneuve and David Morse. Directed and written by Lars von Trier. Produced by Vibeke Windelov. A Fine Line release. Musical drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 139 min.

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