Friday, March 12, 2010

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dancer in the Dark (2000) is manipulative and verges on melodrama.  It's clinically designed to lead you down a well-defined emotional path.  And, for the most part, it works.

Bjork plays Selma, an eastern European immigrant in the US, alone apart from her son who has inherited her failing eyesight.  She's works in a factory to save up enough money to pay for the surgery that will save her son's vision.  Unfortunately, the money is stolen by someone she thinks she can trust, and she's accused of murder. And then things start to get really bad.

Filmed by the director, Lars von Trier, using handheld camera and natural lighting, Dancer has a realistic design aesthetic.  Until, that is, Bjork bursts into song (her character is fascinated by Hollywood musicals).  Dancer in the Dark is a musical, but it's unlike any other musical you've seen.

The songs are impressionistic, reflecting Bjork's recognizable vocalization style.  Some are accompanied by music and are a reflection of Selma's daydreams, while those songs near the end of the movie have no music and are an externalization of her emotions (a coping mechanism for the extreme trauma she finds herself in, perhaps).

The movie is difficult to watch at times, and you feel as if it's deliberately plotted to make you suffer (and yes, that adjective is appropriate) specific emotions. This verges on brazen manipulation, but it never quite feels cheap; this is largely because of the sincerity of Bjork's performance. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment is at the end, when Selma learns that her son will not go blind, but accepts that she will never see him again. Although not an experienced actor, Bjork completely inhabits her character and the emotions Selma feels.

In its entirety, Dancer is an experience that's entirely different to standard Hollywood fare; parts of it shimmer with magic ("I've seen it all" being a particularly memorable song, capturing and enhancing the perfect set of emotions - sorrow and acceptance). I've known a couple of people say that it was traumatic to watch, but ultimately I would rate it as an experience not to be missed.

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