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by nic wistreich | august, 2000

Dancer in the Dark


Lars von Trier is an expert at grabbing the viewer’s hearts and minds in the opening five minutes, squeezing until raw and throwing them back in their face just before the closing credits. Palme D’Or winner, Dancer in the Dark is no different.

It was a miserable looking day as a gaggle of journos and industry delegates congealed outside Edinburgh’s Odeon at the heathen hour of 9 on Sunday morning. And while we left the cinema to more rain, with dampened spirits after some of the most heartrenching cinema in recent memory, the feeling was almost uplifting, as most agreed we had just seen A Great Film.

Dancer in the Dark tells of Selma Jezkova, played by Bjork in her screen debut, a Czech immigrant working in a tool and die factory in rural America. Selma has a secret — she is going blind and her son stands to suffer the same fate if she does not put away enough money to pay for an eye operation. She works day and night saving every cent she earns, taking time out only to indulge in the Technicolor world of her imagination. To the sounds of factory machinery or pencils tapping on paper, Selma can close her eyes and open them again in the all-singing, tap-dancing, Gene Kelly and Vincente Minelli landscape of the American musical. Of course, fantasy is just protection from a harsh reality, and in this case the threat comes from neighbour Bill (David Cross), a cop who steels Selma’s money and then frames her for the theft.

Shot entirely on digital, Selma’s ‘reality’ is a drab and stark world, told through Dogme-style handheld photography. In contrast the dream sequences are richer in colour and more classically framed. Von Trier boasted of using 100 cameras for each musical sequence to give a more spontaneous look and feel than conventional musicals. Some of these work very well, such as Bjork’s song ‘I’ve Seen it All’ on the top of a slow moving train that harks of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Elsewhere the effect is more Stanley Donen shoots Stomp! in a Diesal advert.

Bjork deservedly won at Cannes for her performance, which is often disconcertingly honest and frank. She lays her soul bare, not so much acting as being. As the drama escalates and Bjork suffers greater and greater misfortunes at the hands of an increasingly hostile environment, it is impossible not to be moved. Most tragic is her inherent goodness, reminiscent of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan. Few notice this save boyfriend in waiting Jeff (Peter Stomare) and fellow factory worker Cath, played by Catherine Deneuve. Yes, that’s right, Catherine Denueve works in a factory, and few but her could manage to appear so perfectly suited in the environment while still looking stunning.

Needless to say, though the film has many bright moments, the ending isn’t. In fact the tragedy becomes so overwhelming as to be cathartic. So much so that hardened critics who were choked up during the screening, or even cried, spoke afterwards of how they must see it again, and many had already seen it two or three times. A belterblast of a film that will long stay with me.

Dir: Lars von Trier, Denmark-Germany-Sweden-France, 2000

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