(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a list poem, so, based on this film, I wrote a list of things that make my heart ache. Try singing it to the tune of “My Favorite Things,” which was used in the movie.)
Signs that the world is a heinous taskmaster,
Questions with answers unfair to the asker,
Innocence tainted by lack of concern:
These are the lessons it pains me to learn.
Optimists dashed and brought low for their dreaming,
Bitterness tinged by a sweetness redeeming,
Love too naïve to be wary of hate,
Promises broken or kept far too late,
When the dog dies,
When the tale ends,
When I need to grieve,
My broken heart summons the tears as it mends,
For they never truly leave.
MPAA rating: R (more for intensity, what’s shown is closer to PG-13)
Due to his reputation for controversy, I’ve never been eager to watch the films of Lars von Trier. Yet I’ve been long curious about Dancer in the Dark, and my Blindspot series seemed like a prime chance to find out how a musical could also be considered among the most depressing movies of all time. I have a finicky regard for unapologetic downers. I love Grave of the Fireflies and The Elephant Man dearly, yet I can’t stand something like Seize the Day or The Hours. It depends on the film and the person whether it has the desired effect, and Dancer in the Dark hit me harder than I was expecting.
I only knew of Icelandic singer Bjork for her strange style of singing, but she proves to be perfect for the role of a Czech immigrant mother struggling to provide her son with a better life. Having settled in Washington State in the 1960s, Selma Jezkova works hard in a factory with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), rents a trailer from a kind couple (David Morse, Cara Seymour), practices for a small stage production of The Sound of Music, and is slowly going blind. She’s been saving up for an operation so that her son need not bear the same affliction, which begins to impede her daily life.
Throughout the first half, the film gives every reason to love these characters, everyone sympathetic and helpful to Selma, including a would-be suitor she rebuffs (Peter Stormare). I could relate to Selma’s love of musicals and admired her commitment to her son, even if her stubbornness got in the way sometimes. Then, by believable but heartbreaking measures, one character’s selfishness and self-loathing become destructive and ruin everything that Selma has built.
Dancer in the Dark is not the kind of film I would expect to like, choppily edited and shot with a grainy, hand-held camera in a style that is apparently part of a semi-genre/movement called Dogme 95, which von Trier helped to establish. It’s an odd mixture when this style focused on realism suddenly shifts into the magical realism of Selma’s daydreams, musical segments where the sounds she hears become rhythmic as the colors brighten and friends and bystanders break into choreography.
It’s not shot like a typical musical, nor are the songs instantly catchy like something from Broadway. Bjork’s singing is even distracting at times, making the lyrics hard to understand. Yet it’s more about the feelings the songs create, and they strike deep. One revels in Selma’s love of musicals, even as it betrays her. After a horrific event, one song plays out the way Selma surely wishes it could go under better circumstances. Again, it’s a strange juxtaposition, but it works, in a way I can only compare to how humor was mixed with tragedy in Life Is Beautiful.
The leadup to the tragic climax is probably strung out too much, but Dancer in the Dark left me haunted as few films do, and while some critics have dismissed it as shameless melodrama, it earns its heartbreak in my book. While it’s not a perfect comparison, since Selma actually commits a crime, the way the world turns on her brought to my mind the trial and suffering of Christ, a parallel strengthened by Selma’s line about her son’s operation, that it would be known “that he was paid for.”
With strong supporting work from Deneuve, Morse, and Siobhan Fallon (even a cameo from Joel Grey), Dancer in the Dark proved to be an acting powerhouse thanks to Bjork herself, who staggeringly was passed over for an Oscar nomination despite winning Best Actress at Cannes. She and the film itself may be an acquired taste and a bitter one at that, but their power is undeniable.
Best line: (Bill Houston) “I love the movies. I just love the musicals.”
(Selma) “But isn’t it annoying when they do the last song in the films?”
(Selma) “Because you just know when it goes really big… and the camera goes like out of the roof… and you just know it’s going to end. I hate that. I would leave just after the next to last song… and the film would just go on forever.”
© 2019 S.G. Liput
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