Dir: Lars Von Trier. Denmark-Sweden. 2000. 139 mins.
Prod Co: Zentropa Entertainment. Int'l Sales: Trust Film Sales (+45 3686 8788). Prod: Vibeke Windelov. Scr: Lars Von Trier. DoP: Robby Muller. Prod des: Karl Juliusson. Ed: Molly Malene Stensgaard, Francois Gedigier. Mus: Bjork. Main cast: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey.
It's a musical but not as we know it. A bold experiment in genre fusion (song'n'dance fantasy meets gut-wrenching melodrama), Dancer In The Dark finally emerges blinking into the sunlight as a strange and sometimes wondrous creature. The mixed response at the end of the press screening appeared to split between enthusiastic applause and lusty booing, eloquently signalling its commercially problematic status as a love it or loathe it experience. But it won over the festival's jury, taking away the Palme d'Or as well as Best Actress award for Bjork's performance as Selma.
The plot has strong affinities with Breaking The Waves. Instead of the voice of God, Selma (Bjork) worships at the altar of Hollywood musicals and their comforting escapist values. A poor factory worker facing the knowledge that she will soon be blind, Selma finds her soothing solace in the memory of a Busby Berkeley routine or the joy of climbing every mountain with Julie Andrews. "In a musical nothing dreadful ever happens," she says. Despite the support of friend Cathy (Deneuve), a local couple and other friends, her real life is filled with little but dread. Her condition is hereditary and destined to afflict her 12 year-old son. Like Emily Watson before her she will go to any extreme for the love of her man, even if it involves the ultimate sacrifice of her life.
As melodramatic as a Chaplin silent, the story is interrupted at various stages with elaborate musical interludes in the Hollywood fashion that take place on the factory floor, a country railway track and the middle of a courtroom. Unfortunately, these are staged and edited in such a distracting way that they rob the viewer of the traditional exhilaration found in the best MGM efforts. Limbs are cut off, dancing feet often go unseen and the fast cut editing creates a jarring rhythm. The contrast between happy-ever-after Hollywood and the grim realities of Selma's life are further underlined by a distressingly graphic murder scene and the further agonies of trial and martyrdom that Selma is willing to accept as the means of saving her son's sight. The more one can disregard some of the plot contrivances, the more one is likely to respond to events on a purely emotional level. There were those wreathed in tears by the end of the screening as well as those itching to leave the cinema.
The revelation of the film is undoubtedly a debut performance from songbird Bjork that seems to gain in stature and depth as the film progresses. Any initial awkwardness she may possess is appropriate to the character. Later she proves more than capable of the gruelling demands that are made upon her. She is every bit as good as Watson was in her breakthrough debut performance in Breaking The Waves.
Wonderful moments mingle with longueurs, the sublime and the strange sit side-by-side and just when you're willing to disregard it as a kind of grand folly it comes back even stronger to grab your heartstrings and refuse to let them go. It is the ultimate curate's egg.