Here we go; another polarizing film. Lars von Trier ended up winning the Palme d’Or with Dancer in the Dark, and it proved to be one of the more controversial wins. I can see why; this is a hell of a weird film. For one, it’s a musical, but don’t let that immediately put an idea into your head of what kind of film this will be; this is unlike any other musical you have ever seen. In being so, it is both simultaneously a positive and a negative experience. Dancer in the Dark basically takes two different tastes, tastes that are pretty good individually, and crams them together to try and make a bold new flavor. It is only after they have been combined, and you’ve tasted the combination, that you realize that it really shouldn’t have been combined in the first place.
Bjork (yes, that Bjork) gives an extremely rare turn at acting as Selma, a Czech immigrant to the U.S. along with her son Gene. Selma, who works as many hours as she can at a factory, is practically legally blind from a hereditary condition that she is all but certain her son will also inherit; thus why she works all the hours that she does, to save up for an expensive operation that will correct his eyesight. She lives in a trailer on the property of a policeman and his wife, with whom she gets along well, enough so with the cop that they confide in each other their secrets, including that he is behind on his loan payments to the bank… which, knowing that Selma is saving all her money in a tin container, gives him an idea; one that will have repercussions for the both of them. There’s a lot more to the plot than that, but to go any further would risk spoilers, and I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the opportunity of seeing this one for yourself. Now, that’s not really to say that it’s good; rather, like my metaphor in the opener, the film is two different kinds of film crammed together – a neorealist, Dogme-style drama, and a musical with song-and-dance numbers, and while the two separate parts are each quite good for what they are, when they are married together in this single film, it just comes off as very strange. You’ll start to get involved in the realistic side of the film, and then, ever so slightly, von Trier ups the saturation of color and has the cast launch into an elaborate dance number, all while being filmed with low-grade digital camcorders (or whatever he used to film his Dogme stuff), which makes for an extremely off-putting feeling. You can’t help but get the sensation that something isn’t right; that these two styles of film should not be combined in this way, because it doesn’t really work. The two separate parts of the film do work, but only when they are kept separate; the realistic plot side, for instance, is extremely affecting, especially when the plot takes one of its many freefalls, and, thanks to a surprisingly excellent and empathetic performance by Bjork, we feel ourselves metaphorically falling right out of the sky along with her, to the point that I could actually feel myself getting misty-eyed by the end of the film. And then a musical number would start, and it would just all collapse, almost into laughability.
I’m really unsure of where to go with this one. When the film worked, it really, really worked, and I caught myself starting to feel emotions that I don’t think I’ve ever felt in watching a film before. But then, almost like a Godard film, it would just shatter around me, and I’d find myself wishing the film wasn’t a musical at all, so it would work so much better. Really, that’s what von Trier’s previous film Breaking the Waves was, and indeed if Dancer in the Dark weren’t a musical, having both on the list would be completely redundant (perhaps why the editors chose to cull this one from the recent edition, and leave Breaking the Waves in). All that said, this was certainly a unique experience, and for that I can see how it made the list, but it wouldn’t be one I would recommend, except to a select few who I know will get much the same thing out of it that I did; of what I was able to get out of it, that is.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10