Dancer in the Dark

Friday, October 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Every once in a while, critics like to draw a line in the sand and huff and puff over a particular movie, as if they're dealing with a work of genius or a sin against sensibility. Such is the case with Dancer in the Dark, the new musical from Danish cinematic bad-boy Lars von Trier.

"It's an unqualified triumph!" proclaims one. "It's a crock!" sniffs another.

Actually, Dancer in the Dark is neither. It's a carefully crafted provocation that both undermines and expands the notion of what makes a movie musical. And in this age of mindless copycats and endless sequels, that's reason enough to give thanks.

The movie revolves around Selma, a Czech immigrant who works in a factory in Washington state in the 1960s. Faced with the drudgery of her assembly-line job, she daydreams about musicals. But there's no glamour, no top hat, no fantastical escape in Selma's reverie; rather, she incorporates the clanking rhythms of machines and the chugging of trains, while imaginary dancers use mops and tools and axes as props.

At the center of all this choral commotion is Björk, the Icelandic pop singer who deservedly won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival this year. She wrote the film's score and gives a wrenchingly emotional performance. As Selma, she struggles to keep up with the unrelenting machines, especially since she's going blind and can't see what she's doing. To make matters worse, her only son is losing his sight, too, and needs an operation by age 13. So Selma scrimps and saves with the help of friends, including the irascible Kathy (Catherine Deneuve).

Selma's plans go awry, however, when an overextended landlord (David Morse) decides to "borrow" her savings. Without giving away too much of the plot, let's just say that our heroine faces the prospect of doing her song-and-dance routine in the Big House.

Besides the obvious oddity of a musical set in the direst of circumstances, Dancer in the Dark qualifies as a provocation for lovers of musicals on several levels:

• It opens with an audacious overture (which was much more effective when set against a pitch-black screen, as it was in Cannes, than in its current, colorful incarnation). And you have to admit that few directors would dare to open with a throwback overture.

• It promptly proceeds to an endearingly pathetic attempt to rehearse a local production of The Sound of Music, with the awkward Björk as Maria, perhaps a commentary on the director's feelings about the popular movie musical. (He has termed it a bad movie with good music.)

• It avoids romantic love. Selma isn't looking for a boyfriend. She isn't pining over any man. And her daydreams don't include a Prince Charming. She simply wants to save her son's sight. But when was the last time you saw a movie musical without romance as the central theme?

• The heroine is a bespectacled duckling who never develops into a conventional swan. And the casting of Ms. Deneuve as a factory drone seems to be deliberately toying with the long-cherished image of her as the charming ingenue of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the greatest of French musicals. Deneuve the dowdy?

• The use of a hand-held camera produces jerky cinematography ­a deliberate ploy that gives the movie a documentary feel and puts it in direct contrast with the overproduced, slick musicals of 1950s Hollywood. Technically, it resembles a "Dogma" film ­ a European-based movement that favors no-frills moviemaking and has been championed by Mr. Von Trier. There's no background music, no themes to fill the awkward silences or drown out the white noise. When was the last time you saw a musical with long stretches of silence and unadorned conversation?

• But most importantly, there's a deliberate perversion of the traditional proposition that good will triumph. At one point, Selma proclaims that she loves musicals because you know "nothing dreadful will ever happen." But Selma hasn't seen Dancer in the Dark (or, for that matter, Pennies from Heaven). Dancer's audience won't be sent home with a hum and a smile.

When talking to reporters in Cannes, Ms. Deneuve said she thought that director Von Trier had "broken the mold of musicals." That may be an exaggeration. But it's also an accurate description of what Mr. Von Trier was trying to do: bring operatic tragedy to the screen in a down-to-earth way.

After viewing Dancer in the Dark, it'll be hard to argue that the director hasn't succeeded, at least in part.

Some won't see the point in trying; some will consider Dancer too over-the-top; some will find it both gritty and grating. But others will revel in the cinematic effort to reinvent and bend a genre to the times; they'll be surprised that singing and dancing can once again seem organic to a movie; they'll savor the haunting melodies of Björk; and they'll acknowledge Dancer in the Dark for what it really is – a splendidly flawed tale that shocks us out of the doldrums of a dismal cinematic summer.