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'Dancer in the Dark'

'Dancer in the Dark' plays out like a musical shot in a socialist regime

Friday, October 06, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

For all of its singing and elaborate choreography, Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark," now at the Manor Theater, actually qualifies as a kind of antimusical.

'Dancer In The Dark'

RATING: R for some violence

STARRING: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse

DIRECTOR: Lars Von Trier


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars


Think of it as sardonic contrast, the equivalent of a photographic negative held up against the lavishly exuberant Hollywood archetype hawking America's belief in truth, justice and happy endings.

Winner of the Palme D'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "Dancer in the Dark" creates its own strangely fascinating alternate universe. An opening title announces the setting as Washington State in the early 1960s. But it was actually shot in Sweden, and the action hovers in a sparse gray drabness that made me think of Eastern Europe under Communist rule.

That's where the film's central character, Selma (portrayed by the Icelandic pop singer Bjork), was born. She moved from Czechoslovakia to America with her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic), planning to scrimp and save for an operation that would spare him from the blindness that is overtaking her.

She cheats on an eye test so she can keep her job on the stamping machines in the factory where she works. In her spare time, she earns extra cash by methodically threading bobby pins onto pieces of cardboard from which they are sold. She rents a trailer from her neighbor, Bill (David Morse), a policeman, and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour). Her best friend is another European at the factory, Kathy (a decidedly unglamorous Catherine Deneuve).

Selma verges on a parody of Yankee thrift, refusing even to buy her son a birthday present in pursuit of her single-minded goal. Life grows harder as Selma's eyesight continues to fade, but she refuses to give in. She tells no one of her handicap and even lies about what she does with the money she earns.

She finds her escape in Hollywood musicals. As a girl, she used to leave before the last number so that in her mind, the movie never ends. She has even joined an amateur theatrical troupe, landing the role of Maria in "The Sound of Music." Despite the hazards of her job, she daydreams to the rhythms of the factory machines and imagines herself at the center of a musical production number, her co-workers turning into a troupe of dancers performing intricately synchronized steps.

Why do people in musicals just break into song? Writer-director Von Trier ("Breaking the Waves") trumps the question by setting Selma's fantasy in such dreary surroundings, with such workaday people. This isn't "Pajama Game." It's what I imagine a musical number might look like in a movie filmed as socialist realism.

In the press notes, Von Trier says, "My parents were communists and they thought that all musicals were American rubbish." Indeed.

In his production numbers, all the emotion seems to be washed out of the music except for Selma's dreamy passion. But it is reality, not escapism, that gets her into horrible trouble. She is innocent, but she will pay the ultimate price -- a reverse O.J. This is America, after all, or at least Von Trier's take on it.

The filmmaker saves most of the authentic feeling for the film's climax and an authority figure named Brenda (Siobhan Fallon), whose emotional attachment to our heroine transcends what should be a strictly formal relationship. The surreal circumstances of Selma's final retreat into escape add to the scene's impact. Has she once again left before the movie ends? I just know the rest of us are left blinking as the lights come up, as it were. There is even a kind of encore or reprise.

Several devices tend to distance viewers from the film. The reality sequences are shot like a documentary, with a handheld camera that will cause some audience members to reach for the Dramamine. The musical numbers, in contrast, were supposedly shot with 100 cameras, fixed in place. Deneuve's presence as a factory worker doesn't bother me, but Morse -- a familiar Hollywood face -- pulled me out of the story. Bjork may or may not be an actress, but she is effective in the role.

Most critics have either loved or loathed "Dancer in the Dark." After mulling it over a while, I find I admire "Dancer in the Dark" more than I embrace it. Von Trier often tries my patience, but for the right reasons.

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