The dark is a place of both fear and pleasure for Czech immigrant Selma Jezkova (Björk) in Lars von Trier’s astonishing and triumphant musical melodrama Dancer in the Dark. It’s the 1960s in a fictional rural America, and the factory worker and single mother, secretly going blind from a hereditary eye disease, is frantically saving money for an operation that might spare her 12-year-old son from the same encroaching fade to black.
But the dark is also where Selma loses herself in the classic Hollywood musicals that sustain her. Sitting in a dimmed theater with her friend and fellow factory worker, Kathy (Cathérine Deneuve, the world’s most soigné machine operator), she’s transported into the light; what she can’t see on the screen, she relies on Kathy to describe. Even at work, the methodical clunks and hisses of the factory machinery suggest all-singing, all-dancing numbers in her head. Radiant in her childlike — and Björk-like — passion, Selma wins the role of Maria in a local amateur production of The Sound of Music — then needs Kathy to guide her, surreptitiously, around the stage.
Selma’s life is one of steadily escalating tragedy. But in the dark, she’s free to dance in a better, sunnier tomorrow.
This is the stuff of grand opera and magnificent movie fantasy, and the effect on von Trier is tonic. He has created disturbingly miserable child-women before — the saintly simpleton who offers up her body in Breaking the Waves, the ”spazzing” innocent who trusts too much in The Idiots — and his obsession has felt alienating at times. But in opera, as in musicals, heroines can never be too tragic, nor pathos too outsized, while the more lavish the musical number, the more satisfying. And for von Trier, moving on from the self-imposed restrictions of his artistic manifesto Dogma 95 has led him to new magnanimity of storytelling.
Dancer in the Dark (which won the Palme d’Or this year at Cannes and the top acting prize for its star), is animated by Björk’s powerful artlessness and the originality of her musicianship (the famous nonactress wrote the haunting soundtrack, then pushed herself to emotional exhaustion during production). The movie’s choreographed musical numbers celebrate and reinvigorate convention as dazzlingly as Dennis Potter did in his TV masterpiece The Singing Detective, as personally as Jacques Demy did in his ultra-Frenchified 1964 Hollywood musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Von Trier, a man full of phobias who has never crossed the Atlantic, creates an imaginary America — and a nightmarishly imagined, highly stylized American capital punishment scenario — in which Björk and Deneuve (who, not coincidentally, starred in Cherbourg) make unlikely, yet somehow believable best friends. The rest of this eclectic cast is equally well blended. Swedish actor Peter Stormare plays Selma’s quiet admirer, and former St. Elsewhere regular David Morse advances his current career as a heavy playing her treacherous neighbor. Joel Grey, Zeljko Ivanic, and Udo Kier all have a natural place, and former SNL player Siobhan Fallon makes a tender prison guard.
Dancer in the Dark is graced with a particular genius for absorbing the past to suggest an exciting cinematic future — one in which the latest video techniques are employed to a purpose that transcends mere technical showmanship: In the swirl of the dancing is a dancer we care about. ”I’ve seen it all,” Selma sings in this optimistic tragedy. Von Trier, meanwhile, shows us something amazing we haven’t seen before. A
— Lisa Schwarzbaum
Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is a crock — a very pretty, deftly executed crock. It’s like von Trier’s 1996 masterpiece, Breaking the Waves, remade as a high-concept masochistic Hallmark card. Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant living in rural America in the early ’60s, is going blind, and she devotes her life to saving money for the operation that will prevent her 12-year-old son (Vladica Kostic) from suffering the same genetic fate. How nobly does Selma strive? Why, she works double shifts at a tool-and-die factory, even as her failing eyesight dooms her to risk her livelihood (and her limbs), and she still finds time to rehearse the role of Maria in a local production of The Sound of Music. Now that’s a big heart.
At once kitschy and contrived, Dancer in the Dark is a grandiloquent exercise in holier-than-thou martyrdom, yet I do think that its musical numbers, in contrast to the rest of the film, are discordantly lovely visions of heaven bursting through on earth in color-saturated splendor, and at least one of them lays bare the heavy-handed tweeness of von Trier’s design. Selma, standing on a beautiful wooden bridge, listens to the clackety-clack of a train going by, and as the sound becomes the music of her imagination, the soaring melancholy of Björk’s voice takes over the movie. A friendly suitor, standing next to Selma, sings, ”You’ve never been to Niagara Falls?” and she answers, ”I have seen water, it’s water, that’s all.” A little later, she adds the plaintive refrain ”I have seen it all, there is no more to see.” Selma is saying that she accepts blindness — but, even more, that she’s content to withdraw from the experience of life itself. She isn’t just willing to die for her son. She’s ecstatically ready to die.
But that’s the problem with the movie. Its heroine doesn’t embrace cataclysmic self-sacrifice through conflict or soul-searching or pain. She’s simply made that way — she’s a clockwork saint. There’s no drama to her goodness, just a stacked-deck series of moral tests that she sails through with numbing perfection.
Björk, sporting thick spectacles and a dank mop of hair, with a fleshy baby face that breaks into a gaze of beatific happiness (she’s a dewdrop that smiles), looks like Emily Watson’s library-nerd kid sister, and Dancer in the Dark, with its jump-cut editing and herky-jerky home-movie camera style, is a transparent attempt to recapture the glory of Breaking the Waves. The difference is this: In Waves, Watson’s character, through the ruthless ego of her love, committed an act of metaphysical violence, virtually killing her husband in order to bring him home. Björk’s Selma commits an act of literal violence, but the movie twists itself into sentimental knots to justify and exonerate her, only to dispatch her into a small-town legal system so pitiless that her life isn’t worth the $2,000 of pro bono work that could save it.
We never really do get to know Selma’s son, and so the pivotal love relationship remains as abstract as the one in Breaking the Waves was intimate. Yet that ”flaw” ultimately reflects the intentions of von Trier, who wants you involved not with Selma but with his vision, his lyrical saintliness as a filmmaker. Can a movie that hinges on this many cheap tricks really ask you to buy its purity? Dancer in the Dark is like a naive modernist hymn made by someone who doesn’t, deep down, believe in hymns. C
— Owen Gleiberman