The dark is a place of both fear and pleasure for Czech immigrant Selma Jezkova (Björk) in Lars von Trier’s astonishing and triumphant musical melodrama Dancer in the Dark. It’s the 1960s in a fictional rural America, and the factory worker and single mother, secretly going blind from a hereditary eye disease, is frantically saving money for an operation that might spare her 12 year old son from the same encroaching fade to black.
But the dark is also where Selma loses herself in the classic Hollywood musicals that sustain her. Sitting in a dimmed theater with her friend and fellow factory worker, Kathy (Cathérine Deneuve, the world’s most soigné machine operator), she’s transported into the light; what she can’t see on the screen, she relies on Kathy to describe. Even at work, the methodical clunks and hisses of the factory machinery suggest all singing, all dancing numbers in her head. Radiant in her childlike – and Björk like – passion, Selma wins the role of Maria in a local amateur production of ”The Sound of Music” – then needs Kathy to guide her, surreptitiously, around the stage.
Selma’s life is one of steadily escalating tragedy. But in the dark, she’s free to dance in a better, sunnier tomorrow.
This is the stuff of grand opera and magnificent movie fantasy, and the effect on von Trier is tonic. He has created disturbingly miserable child-women before – the saintly simpleton who offers up her body in ”Breaking the Waves,” the ”spazzing” innocent who trusts too much in ”The Idiots” – and his obsession has felt alienating at times. But in opera, as in musicals, heroines can never be too tragic, nor pathos too outsized, while the more lavish the musical number, the more satisfying. And for von Trier, moving on from the self imposed restrictions of his artistic manifesto Dogma 95 has led him to new magnanimity of storytelling.
”Dancer in the Dark” (which won the Palme d’Or this year at Cannes and the top acting prize for its star), is animated by Björk’s powerful artlessness and the originality of her musicianship (the famous nonactress wrote the haunting soundtrack, then pushed herself to emotional exhaustion during production). The movie’s choreographed musical numbers celebrate and reinvigorate convention as dazzlingly as Dennis Potter did in his TV masterpiece ”The Singing Detective,” as personally as Jacques Demy did in his ultra-Frenchified 1964 Hollywood musical ”The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
Von Trier, a man full of phobias who has never crossed the Atlantic, creates an imaginary America – and a nightmarishly imagined, highly stylized American capital punishment scenario – in which Björk and Deneuve (who, not coincidentally, starred in ”Cherbourg”) make unlikely, yet somehow believable best friends. The rest of this eclectic cast is equally well blended. Swedish actor Peter Stormare plays Selma’s quiet admirer, and former ”St. Elsewhere” regular David Morse advances his current career as a heavy playing her treacherous neighbor. Joel Grey, Zeljko Ivanic, and Udo Kier all have a natural place, and former ”SNL” player Siobhan Fallon makes a tender prison guard.
”Dancer in the Dark” is graced with a particular genius for absorbing the past to suggest an exciting cinematic future – one in which the latest video techniques are employed to a purpose that transcends mere technical showmanship: In the swirl of the dancing is a dancer we care about. ”I’ve seen it all,” Selma sings in this optimistic tragedy. Von Trier, meanwhile, shows us something amazing we haven’t seen before.