Dancer in the Dark
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 13 October 2000

Have Mercy

Bjork is the reason to see Dancer in the Dark, whether you usually like her or not. And she is a great and wonderful reason. Granted, any encounter with the ex-Sugarcube tends to be strange. She has demonstrated repeatedly her astonishing sense of timing and self, in her many performances on screens, on stages, and on audio recordings. She's equally adept at purring pop- ditties, big-belting show tunes, and technologizing her tremendous voice until it sounds not-quite- human. And then, she is witty concerning her own visual incarnation: in music videos especially, she spins and gesticulates and perpetually transforms -- like some sweet-natured and slowed- down whirling dervish. All that, and she's Tricky's ex-girlfriend, too.

Bjork's performance in Lars von Trier's mercilessly bleak, beat-you-down musical is a revelation, not so much because she demonstrates craft or creativity -- though she does show much of both, in raw, vibrant, sometimes unbelievable ways -- but because she exposes her near- otherworldly comprehension of music as a means of feeling, seeing, and being in the world. She is, in a word, a musician in a musical, a musician who has half-conceived and half-shaped a musical, and that in itself is a rare event, considering that, aside from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as dancer-choreographers, most musicals are produced by movie-people, not musicians. The Who's Tommy and David Bowie in Absolute Beginners would be comparably unusual "musical moments," and Bjork's presence here works at that level of weirdness. And she has some to do some battling against two sets of well-enforced conventions to make that presence felt. That is, the movie adheres to 1) von Trier's own Dogme 95 edicts against "tricks" (which basically mean the cameras are handheld, colors dreary, lines sometimes improvised, and soundtrack -- aside from the dance numbers, of course -- more or less ambient); and 2) the excesses of Hollywood musicals, complete with a spectacularly melodramatic and implausible plot, interrupted by lavish, generally outrageous song-and-dance numbers.

This plot is actually pretty awful, sort of a Breaking the Waves 2, in which the female protagonist, here named Selma, is dreadfully beleaguered by her life circumstances, and yet maintains her faith, if not precisely in god (recall Emily Watson's Bess conversing with herself in god's voice), then in the moral codes she sets for herself, as these codes are revealed in her musical fantasies. Let me explain: Selma is a Czech immigrant eking out a living in rural Washington state in 1964. She's is as plucky as young Judy Garland ever was, resisting the grim fate that's been dealt to her. Except that Selma doesn't have Andy Hardy or a barn as back-up. At the time you meet her, Selma is fast going blind from some unexplained genetic imperfection that she has passed on to her ten-year-old son, the ominously named Gene (Vladan Kostic) (I read one review which suggested he was named after Kelly, but given the film's general dourness, it's more likely the kid is named for the horror afflicting his mom and awaiting him....) In order to scrape together the money she needs to pay for the boy's sight-saving operation, Selma works long days in a factory that presses metal plates, nights putting bobby pins in those little cardboards on which they're sold (10,000 cards at a time), and every in-between moment imagining herself into a miraculous, melodious world where endings are always happy.

All this huge and metaphorical awfulness is too much to bear, of course. And so Selma has divined -- or better, created -- an outlet in her love of music. One of her precious few pleasures is rehearsing to play -- what else? -- Maria in a local theater production of *The Sound of Music* (and there's little as haunting as Bjork singing, so haltingly, so achingly, "When the dog bites, when the bee stings..."). Selma is supported in her many survival efforts by her best friend and co-worker, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve, so exquisite even in her factory overalls that she draws attention to the film's elaborate network of artifices and absurdities), who helps her cover up at work as her sight gives out (by working double shifts alongside Selma). Kathy also goes with her friend to Busby Berkeley movies and "spells out" the dance moves in Selma's palm and goes so far as joining the theater cast as an extra dancer, though it's plain she's not exactly comfortable singing or dancing.

As if to lay on the hardships, Dancer in the Dark also gives Selma a die-hard would-be suitor, the doting, if awkward Jeff (Peter Stormare) and a seemingly good friend in a local cop, Bill (David Morse). She rents a teeny housetrailer on Bill's property, and one late night, he comes by her place in a state, having suddenly realized that his inheritance has all been spent by his beautiful wife Linda (Cara Seymour). That this is only coming to Bill at this moment -- when the bank is threatening to take stuff from him -- suggests that Selma is not the only character living in a dream world. Afraid that his meager salary won't keep the all-things-Jackie-Kennedy-obsessed Linda satisfied, he breaks into tears in front of Selma, who just can't help herself: she's sympathetic to a fault, revealing to Bill her own desperate circumstance by way of "sharing." Unfortunately, when she tells him she's almost blind, she also gives Bill the opportunity he needs to do something terrible, namely, he stays after their conversation is over, and watches where she hides her candy-tin of cash.

Bill is, it tragically turns out, another version of Bess's husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard) in Breaking the Waves, inflexible, self-absorbed, and feeling like a victim. This translates to dire results for Selma, as Bill feels very white-guy-entitled, like someone, somewhere, owes him, big time. And Selma (like Bess before her) is at once too unwitting and generous, too confused and childish -- too blind, to extend that damn metaphor -- to refuse him outright. When cowardly Bill pleads with Selma to "have mercy," she does the absolutely wrong thing, mistaking it to be the right one, or at least, the result of having no choice that she can see. And the movie spends the rest of its runnning time making you, if not Selma, regret her blindness to options, punishing her, devastatingly and repeatedly. The precise workings of this imbroglio are at once intricate and drudge-like, leading to a horrific, pathetic outcome, all premised on unlikely coincidences and a kind of willful ignorance on the characters' parts.

But all this hardly matters. Bjork -- or more precisely, Bjork singing, dancing, and imagining her way beyond the mundane business of making sense in a mere movie -- is astonishing. She make songs out of beats she hears in everyday events and objects: factory machines, railroad trains, air vents, her own heartbeat. Her sheer joy and even her self-identity, as it might be divined in all this music found and conjured, is inspired and gorgeous, even as the film around her abides by generic rules. Selma's flights into wacky fancy occur at the most desperate moments, when her eyesight completely fails, when she's confronted with a ghastly crime (here she sings and dances with a bloodied corpse), and then, when she finds herself in a courtroom with simultaneously earnest and creepy DA Zeljko Ivanek (the earnest DA in TV's Homicide and the creepy governor in Oz), as well as the chief prosecution witness, a Czech musical actor played by Joel Grey (this bit of casting in itself may be worth the price of admission). Everyone in the courtroom ends up dancing and swooning cartoonishly, in Selma's musicalized fantasy of events. And when she half-wails, half-sings from a tabletop, "I'm in-no-cent!", you're inclined to think they should let her off, for being Bjork and cooking all this up, if nothing else. Equally incredible is Selma's can't-love-you duet with Jeff, "I've Seen It All" (on the album, Selmasongs, Bjork sings with Thom Yorke), a dance number coordinated with the sounds of a passing train and the tool-wielding laborers riding on it, as she insists that going blind is, in some make-believe grand scheme, unimportant: "What is there to see?"

And this is the point: what is there to see, in a world so filled with misery and horror? Surely, the film itself has been cited as one of these terrible things: its generated controversy from day one, with reports of disagreements between Bjork and the notoriously contrary von Trier on the set (originally asked to compose and produce the score, she became so enraptured with Selma that she and von Trier agreed that she absolutely had to play her). Then came the booing at this year's Cannes Festival, when Dancer won the Palme d'Or and Bjork the Best Actress prize. And then, more recently, UK movie theaters have promised patrons their money back if they don't like the movie after at least 30 minutes of viewing. This peculiar policy suggests that you must see at least some of it before you make a decision as to its morality, its watchability, its legitimacy as art or politics or (admittedly extreme) entertainment. Such generous contracting with viewers is unlikely to become popular with theater-owners, but it does suggest an unusual faith in the power of seeing as a means to understanding. Though it's unlikely you would comprehend Bjork in all her strangeness and sensational self, you can still come close to understanding what music means, to her and maybe to yourself.

Written and
Directed by:

Lars von Trier

Catherine Deneuve
David Morse
Peter Stormare
Cara Seymour
Vladan Kostic
Joel Gray
Siobhan Fallon



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