Montreal Film Journal

DANCER IN THE DARK

And the Palme d'Or goes to... Oh, how sweet it must be to hear the title of your film following these words! Especially for writer-director Lars Von Trier, whose entire body of work has been presented in the official competition at Cannes, most recently "The Idiots", and "Breaking the Waves". Those two films cultivated the offbeat sensibility and anti-filmmaking (shaky hand held cameras, clumsy close-ups, improv) that blooms in "Dancer in the Dark", the wonderful film that finally got Von Trier the Palme. The Grand Jury also rewarded Björk with the Best Actress prize, and it was well deserved. This might be Von Trier's film, but it wouldn't be near as affecting without Björk's extraordinary performance.

The cult singer (in her first and, according to her, last lead role) stars as Selma, a Tchecoslovanian immigrant to the United States of the '60s with a bleak little life which is about to get much bleaker. She lives with her 13 year old son in a crummy trailer on the propriety of a gentle cop (David Morse) and his wife, and she leaves her home only to go work long hours in a factory. As if this wasn't enough, she happens to suffer from a genetic disease that has her slowly but surely going blind, and if her son doesn't get a costly operation, he will too lose his sight. So Selma works and works and saves every penny, and she ends up with quite a nice little bundle of cash... Nice enough to attract the attention of a certain gentle cop who's about to have his house repossessed because of his wife's manic spending...

Pretty depressing, eh? Yup, and that's just for starters. "Dancer in the Dark" is a legitimate melodrama with not even a happy ending to redeem itself. And with Von Trier's voyeuristic camera closing in on every tear and catching every shred of pain, you're bound to be pretty bummed out yourself. I myself was weeping like a little girl by the end. Any movie that has that much of an impact on me deserves some praise (even though I'm pretty easy to get in tears), but this picture has something even more wonderful going for it. Imagine, in the middle of all this dread, in the midst of all these scenes shot with a shaky digital camera, with natural lighting and next to none art direction... Well, imagine suddenly springing out of it and watching elaborate musical numbers, with everything from dance choregraphies, tap dancing and inventive use of the surroundings as dancing props. As it happens, our poor little blind worker with an accent is fascinated with the Astaire, Rogers and Kelly and when she's feeling bad, she imagines herself acting in the Hollywood musicals so dear to her heart.

That gives "Dancer in the Dark" a whole new dimension and makes it different from any film you've ever seen. The musical numbers are not like wink wink, every one break out dancing and singing, aren't we post-modern. No, in a weird, quirky way, they make perfect sense, this is how Selma sees things, this his her way of coping. And oh, the music! The rare musicals you see these days content themselves with pastiches of old standards, but here the music is as original and interesting as it gets, very much like Björk's. How does her modern, sorta electro-industrial sound fit with a film set in 1964? Well, this is quite clever, Von Trier makes the transition between the "real" world and Selma's fantasy world by having the ambient sounds (the noise in the factory, a train passing by, people marching in a hallway...) gradually form rhythms, and it all makes perfect sense. The film also makes great, surprisingly moving use of some of the tunes from "The Sound of Music", which Selma is rehearsing with an amateur drama class in the film.

And what about the acting! When Björk's singing, there's no other like her, with her oh so powerful if unusual voice, but in the quieter moments, I often found myself forgetting this was her behind the thick glasses and tired clothes. Catherine Deneuve is very good too as Selma's best friend, and so is David Morse as the ambivalent cop. The film also features Peter Stormare as a man who's in puppy love with Selma, and there's something really gripping about their scenes together. Maybe it's the way Selma keeps telling him she hasn't got time for a boyfriend and he keeps coming back and being nice to her... Yeah, Stormare's great, but he should lay off the singing; he's no Thom Yorke, and it's understandable that they replaced his croaky vocals with the Radiohead singer's on the soundtrack album.

Oh, I like this movie. A lot. It's heartbreaking, but in the best of ways.