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A Tragic and Entrancing 'Dancer'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2000


    Dancer in the Dark Bjork, left, and Catherine Deneuve star in "Dancer in the Dark."
Fine Line Features
"In musicals, nothing dreadful ever happens," says Selma (Bjork), the sprite-like child-woman at the center of Lars von Trier's mesmerizing "Dancer in the Dark."

This rapturous regard for musicals, as we come to see, becomes Selma's guiding light through an increasingly depressing existence. As life gets worse for this sweet-natured Czech immigrant, those musicals become a spiritual escape, a way of sidestepping the anguish.

Penniless, Selma works in a tool factory in Washington state to finance an eye operation for her 10-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Selma is rapidly losing her eyesight, and she's concerned that Gene, who wears spectacles now, will inherit the same degenerative disease.

But money comes slowly. So Selma, who lives in a trailer with Gene, regularly filches money from her landlord, a genial policeman named Bill (David Morse) and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour).

For after-work relief, Selma has agreed to play Maria in a local production of "The Sound of Music." She has a nice voice, but her near-blindness – which she tries to hide from everyone – is causing problems during rehearsal. She stumbles onstage. And she can't read her lines.

In the factory, this lack of vision borders on the dangerous. Selma works with expensive machinery that can damage easily. Her devoted friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), tries to help Selma. But, inevitably, she's bound to lose her job. And it seems just a matter of time before the stealing matter comes to a head.

The tougher things get, the more Selma imagines powerfully realistic musical scenes. Random noises from the factory floor or the sound of a train rumbling across a bridge become the rhythmic back beat for a Vincent Minnelli-style song-and-dance number.

Selma bursts into song. The drab world around her becomes an instant soundstage. And passersby perform perfect choreographic patterns. At the end of the number, life returns to normal. And Selma, once again, is a lonely Czech immigrant with bad eyes, a neglected son and no money.

So, what exactly is this movie? "Dancer in the Dark," which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year for Best Movie and Best Female Performance for Bjork, is an immigrant story, on one level. It's a blue-collar allegory, too – a melodrama that finds a fascinating niche between the austere religious films of Robert Bresson and the seriocomic films of Aki Kaurismaki.

It's something of a musical; perhaps a meta-musical would be the right term. And it's surely no accident that this movie, set in 1964, also features Catherine Deneuve – the radiant star of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," a 1964 musical with similar narrative components.

And yet, "Dancer" is a liberation from all of those films and genres. You may leave this movie exhilarated by its no-holds-barred boldness or annoyed and bewildered at the unpredictable course it takes. But love it or hate it – and few will suffer a fair-to-middling opinion – there's little question that "Dancer" sings and dances to its own tune.

Whatever your reaction, you're unlikely to leave "Dancer" singing and tapping your feet. This movie may pay tribute to the likes of Gene Kelly. But it shows no such reverence for happy endings. The story's about all those dreadful things Selma is desperately trying to avoid: Events, in this deliberately melodramatic scenario, take a turn for the brutal.

But the sublime, aesthetic pleasures outweigh the graphic material. Von Trier's superb direction, Robby Mueller's dynamic cinematography and Vincent Paterson's offbeat choreography are just some of the elements to savor here.

Rather than staging and restaging the musical numbers, von Trier shot them in one take with 100 cameras recording the event simultaneously – allowing the Danish director to pick and choose from a rich trove of options. This method makes for incredible fluidity, yet does not exude a secondhand Hollywood slickness. Dennis Potter, creator of "Pennies From Heaven" and "The Singing Detective," would be proud.

The ultimate tribute must surely go to Bjork, the Icelandic musician who also composed the extraordinary songs. Her eerily appealing presence and that otherworldly singing voice define the movie. Without her, this movie could not have been imagined.

Her guileless, forthright commitment to the role makes us believe her, hook, line and sinker. For Selma, being at the center of a Hollywood musical is about as close to sanctification as it gets. And it takes Bjork to make those musical reveries seem as transformative as the visions of Joan. Like the movie created around her, she's nothing short of hypnotic.

DANCER IN THE DARK (R, 139 minutes)Contains strong language and disturbing violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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