Sunday, 4 July 2010

Film journalism: Dancer in the Dark review

REVIEW: DVD Release: Dancer in the Dark

Release date: 17th September 2007
Certificate: 15
Running time: 134 minutes
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Bjork, Vladica Kostic, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare
Genre: Musical
Studio: 4dvd
Format: DVD
Country: Denmark/ Germany/ Netherlands/ Italy/ USA/ UK/ France/ Sweden/ Finland/ Iceland/ Norway

“Emotional pornography”: that’s how Bjork labelled von Trier and his methods after collaborating with him to make Dancer in the Dark. The film may not be as intrepid as his more recent Antichrist or as controversial as The Idiots but those emotionally pornographic moments won von Trier the Palme d’or at 2000’s Cannes and earned Bjork her own award in recognition of the poignant performance von Trier drew from her. Even so, was it worth the director’s flirtation with bankruptcy?

The Icelandic singer plays a Czech mother settled in Washington State with her twelve year-old son. Selma is hard-working but destitute and the two of them live in a caravan at the bottom of their landlord’s garden. Selma pays her way by working in a dreary factory by day, and eventually by night as well. Whilst things are far from rosy for the single parent family, there is nothing particularly remarkable about them either. Selma is shy and inoffensive and faces the same challenges any mother does. Gene’s birthday is coming up, for instance, and it’s no surprise that he asks for a bicycle. Already an outcast amongst his classmates, he simply wants to fit in with his peers like any school boy. Selma desperately tries to make him understand that she simply cannot afford it, but when her policeman landlord treats Gene to his dream birthday present, she naturally expresses an awkwardness that we may well empathise with. Aside from the unwanted interest of Jeff, Selma has very little to break the monotony of life and this is why she turns to the fantastical musical numbers that are scattered throughout the film.


The motivation for Selma’s relocation is revealed a little later in the film and it immediately pulls at the heart strings. The true meaning behind Selma’s work ethic lies with her son, who is destined to lose his sight, just as Selma herself does over the course of the film. Only in America can an operation be performed to prevent the illness from progressing in the blissfully ignorant Gene, who has been protected from the truth by Selma. The money that she has worked so hard to earn is stashed away for the operation, but her fading vision means that she unknowingly betrays it and her son faces the same fate as her.

Determined to save her son at any cost, Selma is intent on finding her money. When she discovers the perpetrator, a familiar acquaintance who should know better, she stops at nothing to get her funds back. Her actions lead to a clash with the law and she eventually faces the ultimate dilemma: her life or her son’s health.


Not the most obvious choice of story for a musical, Dancer in the Dark manages to mix heartbreak with song and dance. Whilst the majority of the film is shot in von Trier’s typical grainy, handheld style with extended use of close-ups and lengthy dialogue, the musical numbers are an effort to break from the director’s usual aesthetic and experiment with Hollywood. The very reason the film works as a musical is the sentimental sense of escapism offered to Selma through these vibrant numbers. Accusations of von Trier’s anti-American bias may be valid in other parts of the film, but these musical moments are a conscious acknowledgement to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Von Trier also draws from operas of the past and in interviews, such as that included in this DVD release, he has referred to the profound impact they used to have on audiences. This is what he wanted to recreate with Dancer in the Dark and this is what he accomplished. When the story plods past the introductory phase and picks up in the latter half, emotions heighten and an almost unbearably tense climax is reached.

Although Bjork has cleared up any rumours that she is yet another singer-turned-actress wannabe, her award was well-deserved. She presents us with a character so honest and endearing that the viewer cannot help but root for her throughout the entire film, even in those very human moments where her sheer stubbornness prevails. After all, that stubbornness is not for nothing: it is a symptom of her determination and devotion to her son. Supported by a cast of naturalistic actors who are clearly comfortable delivering performances about real life using improvised dialogue, Bjork gives a fantastic representation of a struggling, but single-minded woman.


A harrowing film about the lengths a mother will go to for the sake of her son, Dancer in the Dark is an experience that no one is likely to forget in a hurry. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but with its benefits, it is safe to say that it certainly was worth risking Zentropa studios to make this masterpiece. Don’t expect to come away dry eyed.


Rating: 4/5.

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