Dancer In The Dark (2000), or Touchingly Awkward

14 01 2009
Oh, Björk. Youre weird in the most loveable way.

Oh, Björk. You're weird in the most lovable way.

Hello, everybody! Today we take a trip back to the far-off year @)))! Oh, wait. I tried to put the numbers in caps but it just turned them into symbols. Today we take a trip back to the far-off year 2000! Back when we thought that all the computers were going to revert to the year 1900 and turn into concrete boxes full of tinctures and autonomous steam machinery, back when rap-rock was considered a legitimate musical endeavor, back when we thought Bush was just a moron and not the unholy corporate insider moron we think he is today. 2000 was also the year of a small but powerful indie darling film starring an even bigger indie darling. It was called Dancer in The Dark.

This film was directed by the legendary Lars von Trier of Dogme 95 fame, and starred the precocious and adorable Icelandic snow-princess Björk Guómundsdóttir. Or just Björk. She plays Selma, an immigrant factory worker in 1964. She is a single mother who is trying to pay for an operation for her son. The only hitch is that she herself is going blind. She is fiercely independent and proud, and will not admit it. Somehow, many people do not know this about her at first, although they may think it is just very poor eyesight rather than the onset of blindness. She is a joyless woman, taking pleasure in very little things in life other than her son. She loves music, though. It is the one thing she dreams about. Though she cannot see, she and her friend Kathy go to the movies so she can listen to the songs and so her friend can recreate the dances in her hand with her fingers. And when a production of The Sound of Music starts up and she is given the role of Maria, she becomes ecstatic at getting a chance to be a part of music. But her sight is starting to unravel everything; her friends, her job, and even the musical. And as her life begins to fall apart at the seams, the one thing she clings to is the surgery for her son, in hopes that he might not suffer the same debilitating blindness his mother has.

Oh, and did I tell you it was a MUSICAL? Yeah… Well, a half-musical. Half of the movie is dreadfully serious, and the other half consists of her fantasies and daydreams, which are all shown in musical form. The songs are really quite brilliant, and they are all written by Björk and an uncredited Mark Bell. They all pertain to what is happening in the film at the time, and it is interesting to watch how certain, more morose situations are handled (you will know what I mean when I see the movie). One thing, though, which I actually enjoyed was that they brought actors in who could not sing to do some of the musical numbers in the film. David Morse (!) and Peter Stormare (!!) each sing a song with Björk, and you can tell they have rarely if ever used their voices for singing. So if you like your vocals nice and normal, well… what the fuck are you doing watching a Björk movie anyway? Isn’t American Idol on right now? Anyway, I thought it added to the whole organic feel that the movie cultivated through its run-time.

Lars von Trier delivers a powerful movie here. I am a true believer in the artistic developments Dogme 95 has paved the way for, and I think we can safely say that it was the definitive film movement of the 90’s. This film does officially break the Dogme 95 rules (in particular no violence), but it carries on the tradition in spirit. The lighting is totally organic, the camera is hand-held, and the dialogue is very naturalistic. He picks all the right angles in this one, and you have to believe the man is a mad genius for the sheer unwillingness to flinch.

And hey! Guess what? Björk can act! I would have never believed it if you had told me, but she can hit you where it hurts. To be fair, she plays an eccentric foreigner, which is essentially what she is whenever she exists somewhere besides Iceland. However, and this is a big however, she knows how to take you on a real roller-coaster of emotions. Her smile is enough to make you crack one yourself, and when she cries you feel the sting of regret even though you haven’t done anything wrong.

Now here is where I have a problem. It is only one, but it is huge. And the problem? Well, the plot kinda…sucks. A lot. The script felt more than a bit disingenuous. Selma is essentially a victim, the world and everyone in it is essentially a merciless oppressor, and her friends are a bunch of useless meat-bags that stand around like furniture and look concerned. Selma is so stubborn as a character I almost began to dislike her, and the rest of the characters felt under-developed and anemic under the digital, hand-held lens. It really took me out of the movie once I started to feel like this was just an over-long episode of Dudley Do-Right with a notable absence of the titular character. And as an obnoxiously evil Snidely Whiplash tied a worn-down Nell to the tracks of an oncoming train, I couldn’t help but feel that a movie of this high caliber could have used more subtlety than that.

Look, Dancer in The Dark is genuinely a good movie based on many of its merits. The music is Björk-ariffic, the direction is very strong, and you might fall a little in love with the disheveled Selma. But the story is so weak it caves in an otherwise touching movie. So go check it out if you’re curious or into odd-but-touching films that work with the audience on an emotional level (see City of Lost Children). I give this one 7 1/2 singing David Morses out of 10!

Tune in tomorrow for the PSA, where we talk about *dunh-dunh-dunh* Brokeback Mountain. See you then!!!

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