If you had to describe Björk's music, how would you do it? It's not like anything else you've ever heard. She's got a unique voice. It can be melodic, sometimes a little eerie, sometimes happy. Frustrated, you might just give up on trying to explain and play a song. The movie Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk stars, is similar in that it must be experienced to be understood. Director Lars von Trier has achieved something brilliant with this movie if only because of its power to leave you speechless, trying to make sense of your experience.
The film takes place in an oppressive environment in Washington State in 1964. It shows the life of Selma (played superbly by Björk), a shy, passive dreamer working in a factory making metal pots. She has trouble with her young son, Gene, who is often running into trouble with Bill (David Morse), a local policeman. She rents a trailer from Bill and his wife. Selma finds joy in musicals, watching them and taking part in a local production of the Sound of Music. Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) is a supportive friend that helps her through trouble at work. Jeff (Peter Stormare) has a crush on Selma and waits for her after work everyday. She leads a normal life, happy to be in America and out of her native Czechoslovakia.
Complications arise when Bill reveals that he is having money problems. He feels that this could jeopardize his relationship with his wife. David Morse creates a complex and dark character with silent confidence and piercing looks. He can go from the friendly, understanding police officer to helpless and manipulative. Björk begins to reveal Selma as a vulnerable yet flawed character, unwavering in her hopes for her son. Selma reveals her secret affliction to Bill making the title of the film suddenly appropriate. She has been saving money in hopes that her son can have a better life and avoid the same fate.
With the characters set in place von Trier creates a drama of such proportions that make Oedipus and Hamlet look like self-indulgent crybabies. The stakes for these characters are high and urgent. However, the solutions to their problems seem like forgone conclusions without any consideration for other choices. It's difficult to know why the characters take the actions that they take. The measures taken by the characters might seem overly drastic upon examination, but they seem appropriate when presented in von Trier's realistic style. The film takes on the feeling of a documentary or reality television, leaving out ambient music to set tone. Von Trier also makes use of hand held camera work and stark editing techniques that give the film an impressionist feel. Catherine Deneuve is memorable as a true friend to Selma who sticks up for her at work and even at the movies. She seems like a voice of reason at times expressing her frustration with Selma, but her friendship is ultimately unconditional.
In addition to tragedy, he has also managed to create a bizarre musical, with music from Björk. Selma loves musicals because "nothing dreadful ever happens". The musical aspects of the film are triggered by the rhythmic noises of Selma's mundane life. In a conversation with Bill, she says that she would leave the theater of musicals early so that she wouldn't see the end and the musical would go on forever. This foreshadows, incorrectly, that perhaps Selma can slip into a musical number, deluding herself and the audience from her fate.
A common complaint with musicals is the absurdity of the idea that people would just break into song. Here, the songs provide perspective and relief from the subject matter of the film. At times, you find yourself hoping that they'll break into song. The end draws out like a blade; von Trier makes the end of this tale brutally clear.
This film is brilliant and chilling. A theater full of people stayed silent through this film's credits. Frankly, this movie is disturbing but you have to respect a film that makes you feel something. It can't be explained. It can only be experienced.
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