Gotta Dance, Gotta Sing, Gotta Cry, Gotta Die!
Mar 24, 2001
Review by David Abrams
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Utterly original and startling, this is raw emotion set to music. You love it...
Cons:...or you hate it.
The Bottom Line: Icelandic singer Bjork makes an impressive acting debut in this pull-out-all-the-stops musical melodrama that will either have you dancing and weeping or groaning and writhing.
Recommend this product?
Dancer in the Dark is one of those movies that leaves very little middle ground: you either love it or you hate it.
I loved it.
However, I suspect there are many folks who won’t get as caught up in its strange brew of movie styles. Writer-director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) has crafted one of the most original movies of the year, pushing the envelope at every turn. Mainstream audiences will probably wish he’d simply signed, sealed and delivered something other than what they get in this long (140 minutes) tragic story.
Dancer in the Dark is a musical; it’s a soap opera; it’s an independent film (complete with hand-held, improvisational cinematography). The result is something like the love child of John Cassavetes and Busby Berkeley.
When it was released in the U.S. last fall, it received the kind of reviews that spell box office death. “Kitschy schlock gussied up with the trappings of artsiness,” said one critic. “Come to the theater prepared, with a handkerchief in one hand and a rotten tomato in the other,” said another. I’m quite certain they saw a different film than I did. Or maybe they’re just the kind of poison-pen scribes who think the only good musical is a dead musical. But I thought most everything worked well in Dancer in the Dark, and it gives me a glimmer of hope for the upcoming Moulin Rouge, the Nicole Kidman musical which has had a troubled production history.
Set in Washington state in 1964 (but filmed in Sweden), Dancer in the Dark languorously tells the story of the pixie-faced, mermaid-voiced Bjork stars as Selma, a single mother who works in a grim-looking tool factory. It’s a hard life for Selma, shoving metal plates into clanging-thumping-hissing machinery, but she’s perpetually sunny—smiling and humming to herself as she drifts off into song-and-dance fantasies. “I just start dreaming and it all becomes music,” she tells her best friend and co-worker, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). After a long hard day at the factory, she finds further joy playing Maria in a community theater production of The Sound of Music.
Selma fervently believes in the power of Hollywood musicals where, she proclaims, “nothing dreadful ever happens.”
But something dreadful is happening to Selma—she’s going blind as a result of a hereditary disease, one that will eventually steal her 10-year-old son’s sight as well. Selma loves Gene (Vladan Kostic) more than anything in the world (even more than that other Gene, Kelly) and would do anything to secure his safe and happy future. She’s saving up all her hard-earned wages to pay for Gene’s operation, storing the thick roll of dollar bills in a tin hidden in her kitchen.
Dancer in the Dark turns tragic when her landlord—a brooding cop (David Morse) in debt up to his eyeballs—sees where she’s hidden the money. Poor Selma is literally robbed blind. And it gets worse after that, the pathos building to excruciating levels.
I’ve been watching a lot of D.W. Griffith’s silent films lately and I was struck by how much Dancer in the Dark is as unabashedly sentimental as, say, Broken Blossoms or Orphans of the Storm (which also wallowed in blindness, now that I think of it). Von Trier takes a big risk, shoveling operatic emotions at today’s jaded, cynical audiences who are, for the most part, schlock-resistant. I, for one, appreciate a return to old-fashioned melodrama (as long as it’s done as well as it is here).
I suppose Dancer in the Dark could be seen as a parody when viewed from a certain angle, but everyone seems to be playing it straight. The cast is uniformly excellent—especially Deneuve and Bjork, whose characters form a sort of mother-daughter bond. Deneuve really captures Kathy’s maternal love and protection and it’s her character which gives the film its emotional core.
However, if the movie belongs to anyone, it’s Bjork. If you didn’t already know that she was an international singing sensation, if you didn’t know that this was her first time in front of the movie cameras, you’d be going around saying she was the Best New Arrival in Hollywood. Reminiscent of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (von Trier’s other best new arrival several years ago), Bjork goes deep inside the role, making the simple-minded, pure-hearted Selma simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking. Last year’s Grand Jury at Cannes was so impressed with Bjork’s performance that it awarded her the top acting prize (the movie also picked up the festival’s Palme D’Or). I’d have to agree. Apart from her other-worldly style of singing (which takes some getting used to), I didn’t hear her hit a single false note in the entire movie, a role which requires her to be on-screen nearly the entire time.
[On a side note, the movie received a flurry of sizzling press during Cannes when Deneuve and von Trier incomprehensibly criticized the singer’s acting ability. Deneuve: “She cannot act, she just feels.” The director: “She's not acting in the film but she's feeling everything. It was extremely hard on her and extremely hard on everyone.” I’m not sure where the sour grapes came from, but they’re not visible on the screen.]
Dancer in the Dark would be nothing without its musical numbers, however. It takes about a half hour to get around to the singing and choreography, but when it happens—factory workers on the night shift syncopating to the machine-hiss and piston-thump—it’s stunning. The songs, composed by Bjork, are at times ear-bending and unsettling, but there’s so much energy and devotion running through every number that you can’t help but get caught up in Selma’s Busby Berkeley fantasy world. During the songs, von Trier also does something interesting to focus our attention as the otherwise wobbling camera becomes stationary and adopts a golden glow whenever Bjork bursts into song.
Dancer in the Dark is, at heart, a musical about musicals and the way they’ve shaped our cultural consciousness. Like Selma, we’ve all fantasized at one time or another about living our lives according to choreography. To this day, I can’t pass a rain puddle on the street without being tempted to do a little Gene Kelly splashing. Selma is the same way as she mentally escapes from her harsh, gray world. “Isn’t that annoying when they do the last song in the film?” she says. “You just know when it goes really big and the camera goes, like, out of the roof, you just know it’s going to end. I hate that, I really hate that. I used to cheat on that when I was a little girl. I would leave the cinema just after the next-to-last song. And then, the film would go on forever.”
When Selma opens her throat and starts singing in her whispery-shriek of a voice, she does go on forever, entering a different world, one already populated by the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Debbie Reynolds. But, let’s be honest, they never heard or saw anything like this. And neither have you.
Read all comments (2)
Share this product review with your friends
The final installment in Lars von Trier's Golden Heart trilogy (which includes BREAKING THE WAVES and THE IDIOTS), DANCER IN THE DARK takes the direct...
Mikhail Baryshnikov stars as Tony, a famous ballet star and faithless ladies' man who gets involved with a young dancer during the filming of the ball...
On the raisin road to riches, A.C., Beebop, Red and Stretch, find that fame is no bowl of cherries. When they change managers, they discover it was no...
Shirley Mac Laine narrates this exclusive, intimate profile of Baryshnikov's life and work - the first he has ever allowed. Mr. Baryshnikov talks eng...