There are some films I just don’t get. Occasionally a film will be met with critical acclaim and it feels the whole world but me is enamoured with it. Other times, there are commercial behemoths which storm to billions of dollars but leave me disheartened. I feel slightly better about myself for my reaction to Lars von Trier’s 2000 Palme d’Or winning Dancer in the Dark. The film divided critics like few others have before or since. It won awards and was met with praise from the likes of Roger Ebert but received damming criticisms from Peter Bradshaw and many others. Personally I’m with Bradshaw.
Dancer in the Dark feels crass and manipulative and has a story which left me both bored and perplexed. Despite some interesting song and dance numbers and a frankly terrifying ending, I felt at times as though it was a film that would never end and couldn’t wait for it to do so.
The movie is at least partly inflected by the Dogme 95 experiment. Although this film features paid actors and musical accompaniment, the cinematography is mainly handheld in a documentary style. This allows the director to get close to his subjects, aiding realism all the while. The acting, as mixed as it is, further aids the realism but I have to admit I was more than a little put off by the number of nationalities and accents in the cast. The idea split me in two. On the one hand I thought to myself, “Why shouldn’t a director choose an actor because of their nationality or ability to speak a certain way?” but another part of me found it off-putting to have so many accents on screen at once without much reasoning for it. It took me several minutes to work out that the film was even set in the USA.
The plot features a near blind woman called Selma who is played by Icelandic singer/composer Björk. Selma struggles to make ends meet and is desperately saving money so that her son can have a sight saving eye operation. In her day job as a factory machine worker, Selma dreams of musicals and takes evening drama classes in which she has been cast as Maria in a production of The Sound of Music. There’s a whole load of stuff going on in Dancer in the Dark but from my point of view, I just wasn’t interested in any of it. There are themes of betrayal, anti-Communism, face saving and parental love all at work here but I felt the whole thing got bogged down in the stylistic framework which just didn’t work.
I found it hard to focus on the screen because of the juddering, handheld cinematography but the musical numbers where a little more conventional. Von Trier set up several digital cameras to capture takes and these were always stationary. It’s an interesting idea and it creates the sense that the songs are day dreams which matches the narrative structure. It got to the stage where I was eagerly awaiting the next song, not because I’m a huge Björk fan or that I thought they were great, but merely because, like the central character, they took me away from the main story, a story which did nothing for me. It wasn’t until the final scene that my interest returned. It is a horrific and terrifying scene in which I found my eyes were half closed. Come the climactic drop I had to close my eyes altogether. This scene is wonderfully written, shot and acted by all involved.
As I already mentioned, the acting was mixed. Even the central actress herself delivers a very up and down performance but overall I thought it worked. There were times when you could see her lack of craft and experience but sometimes this added to the realistic nature of the film. Catherine Deneuve feels a little wasted but she handles herself well and Peter Stormare is good. David Morse is also pretty decent. My problem with the acting wasn’t so much in the performances but in the overall impression that the cast gave. They often looked lost or out of sync with each other and didn’t seem to really gel. It was almost as though they were reading from different pages or even different scripts.
Overall then I didn’t enjoy Dancer in the Dark. Having said that, I can’t say I’ve ever really ‘enjoyed’ any Lars von Trier film but I feel like he has made several that are better. The cinematography annoyed me, I took very little from the plot and the casting didn’t quite work. Having said that, I quite liked the songs and when she was good, Björk was excellent. The ending is also very memorable and helped to create a better lasting impression of the film than the previous two hours deserved.
- Catherine Deneuve's character was originally written as an African-American but when the actress wrote to the director about the possibility of working together, von Trier re-wrote the part for Deneuve.
- Von Trier and Bjork reportedly had a near impossible working relationship. Deneuve reported that both the director and star were difficult to work with.
- The soundtrack to the movie was released as an album with the title Selmasongs. It reached the top-40 in nine countires.