Movie Review By Heather Clisby
"Dancer in the Dark" is a powerfully fantastical and wonderfully sublime film from Lars Von Trier. Starring the Icelandic singer, Bjork, it is the darkest musical you will ever experience and you are not likely to leave the theater unaffected. Let me just say this: I saw this film in a private screening room reserved for hardened, crusty film critics; not only were several people openly sobbing (myself included) but many of them were grown men who generally prefer public composure.
Sure, there's tap dancing and great big numbers that come straight from a '40s MGM production but there's also betrayal, murder, lies, economic depression, unrequited love and the most excruciating ending I've ever witnessed in a film; it packs an emotional wallop that takes you by surprise. The era seems timeless but appears to be the 1950s.
Winner of the Palme D'Or and Best Female Performance at the Cannes Film Festival, "Dancer in the Dark" is the story of Selma, a Czechoslovakian woman who works in an American factory making stainless steel sinks. She is raising her son, Gene, alone and relies on the generosity of her friends and neighbors. Selma adores American musicals and often finds herself daydreaming during her factory job, the pings and whistles of the machines create music in her head and she's off. Von Trier takes us into her head and here's where we witness these major musical moments.
David Morse is Bill Houston, the nicest, most tormented soul in a cop's uniform. He's Selma's landlord/friend and when he shares a secret with Selma one desperate night, she, in turn, shares one with him. This turns out to be a really bad idea. Bill's inability to come clean to his beautiful wife, Linda, played by Cara Seymour, about their dire financial situation, turn this generous man into a deluded monster.
Selma is pursued by the sweetest, most persistent admirer named Jeff, played by the gentle and handsome, Peter Stormare. He is forever waiting outside the factory to give her a ride home but she does not accept. Jeff is a simple man with simple words and a simply huge heart that openly longs. After awhile, just the sight of him made me ache. I certainly fell for him even if Selma did not.
Catherine Deneuve, endless beauty and talent that she is, plays Cathy, Selma's best friend and dependable rescuer. Cathy loves her friend but get so frustrated with her self-destructive ways that her French storming off-habits can't help but seep out. Deneuve and Bjork work well together, exuding the great sisterly love that only best girlfriends share.
The film's title refers to Selma's poor eyesight that is rapidly declining. Though she wears thick glasses, they are useless by the film's end. At the center of her life is Selma's knowledge that her visual decline is genetic and her beloved young son, Gene, will suffer the same fate if he does not get an operation. Gene, played with realistic sensitivity by Vladica Kostic, knows nothing about any of this.
This is not a comfortable film. It is not a date film, it does not make you want to snuggle with your love or laugh with the person next to you. When Selma observes, "Nothing dreadful ever happens in a musical," it made the audience cringe, sensing she'd be proved oh-so-wrong. Bjork's unruly mop of hair, constantly tangled and never to be brushed, is a visual warning of the chaos to come; her performance is mesmerizing. "Dancer in the Dark" has already affected the way I listen to the world – the squeak of a passing bus, the pounding of a nearby construction site and the clackity-clack of a train all possess a rhythm I never noticed before. This is filmmaking at its finest.
© 2000 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 10/4/00
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