When life blows, just sing avant-garde tunes.
Selma Jezkova (Björk) is a Czechoslovakian factory worker who struggles with life, but is trying her best to make the best of what she has. She loves and adores Hollywood musicals and how they put her into this new world, where happiness, song and dance is abound. But the reality is pretty harsh: Not only is she losing her sight, but she knows that her son will soon, too. This is why, with all of the money she earns and receives from both work and her neighbors, she saves up in order to make sure that her son can get a surgery on his eyes when he turns 13, just so that he doesn’t have to go through the same eye-sight problems that she’s having. However though, things in Selma’s life begin to go very, very South and eventually, she finds herself in a bit of a pickle, where she can only rely on her friend (Catherine Deneuve) and that’s about it. Well, her, and also, her daydreams where she places herself in a modern-day musical, where she, and whoever else around her, are the stars of the show.
I bet by just uttering the name “Lars von Trier”, people already know what to expect from a movie of his. However, a musical? I don’t think that thought would ever cross into anybody’s minds when thinking of von Trier, however, this is the same kind of guy that likes to surprise his audience, keep them on their tip-toes and not give them what they want, and be satisfied with himself.
And if what it is you want is a positive-thinking movie, about happy people, doing nice things for one another, then you’re definitely in the wrong part of town, folks. This is Lars von Trier for Lord’s sakes – the guy who isn’t afraid to put his foot in his mouth in public, nor is he afraid of what the MPAA may have against his movie’s content. He’s a balls-breaker, but best of all: He’s a story-teller, and no one should ever forget that.
Like I mentioned before, you’d never expect someone as drab and as downbeat as Lars von Trier to make a movie in which light, fun and upbeat musical-numbers come completely out of nowhere, but then again, they aren’t really the kind of musical-numbers you’d usually see in something like Grease, the Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, or anything else for that matter. The purpose these musical-numbers serve is that they give the lead character, Selma, an escape from the nightmare her real life becomes. They give her life new meaning and allow her to look on the bright side of things, even if the fact of the matter is that her life absolutely sucks and is only going to get worse from there.
That’s why, as jarring as it initially may be to see von Trier’s characters moving around, dancing, signing and performing as if they were on Broadway, you get used to it after awhile. Also, you realize that the reason why von Trier has these frothy-notes included here is more to poke a bit of fun at the way Hollywood makes light of all of life’s brutal, harsh realities; much rather than applauding Selma’s daydreams as being images that help her get by in life, he looks down on them with a cold, dark and satirical scowl, while still showing that they are needed for her and her life. In a way, he’s almost satirizing Hollywood’s love of the musical, in all of its lovely, delightful-form, which is why it’s sometimes funny to see how over-the-top and how out-of-place these musical-numbers can be and show up in.
However, they all serve a purpose, and that is to blur the lines between what is real, and what isn’t.
And though I want to get very much into detail about where this story and how dark, disturbing and truly terrifying it gets, I can’t help but steer clear from that, due to the fact that once I’ve said one big reveal, I’ve said too much. Then again though, by knowing that this is a Lars von Trier movie, you can already tell that while the story may start-off simple, easy and relatively peaceful, it only continues to get worse, and worse, and worse over time, where people act and behave in disgusting ways. Disgusting ways that, mind you, are exactly what von Trier loves to discuss and show in his movie; he believes that this is the way in which the human-condition actually is, and doesn’t shy away from showing just how evil one person can be, when push comes to shove. I don’t know if I myself, fully believe in von Trier’s juxtaposition, but I do like how he embraces this fact with his characters, and how he shows them in all lights – positive, negative, realistic, etc.
Which is why I find it so hard to have any problems with his movies, especially this one, because while I do realize that these characters are supposed to be written in a humane, fully-dimensional way, I still can’t help myself but to hate most of them. Yet, at the same time, still understand them and the reasons behind their actions. Take, for instance, David Morse’s performance as the neighbor who spends time with Selma, confiding in her and, sometimes, even trying to push her into giving him some money, in order to support his wife, as well as make sure she won’t leave him when she finds out he’s broke. It’s no surprise that Morse is great in this role, but what really surprised me was how this guy was supposed to be painted as something of a “villain”, yet, he’s actually somewhat sympathetic because there’s a connection in the way his choices and decisions are so drastic, that you can tell they come from a deep place in his heart. We’re not supposed to like him, nor are we supposed to empathize with him because of how much of a evil dude he turns out to be, but somehow, it’s hard to hold so much anger towards him.
Same goes with just about everybody else in this flick. Peter Stormare plays the kindest character of the whole movie, a guy named Jeff who, obviously likes and wants to be Selma’s boyfriend, although he goes about it in a creepy, stalker-y way; Catherine Deneuve clearly cares and loves Selma for the gal that she is and supports her through thick and thin, but does put her nose where it doesn’t belong most of the time and comes out looking a bit like a dummy; Cara Seymour plays Morse’s character’s, shopaholic wife, who wants to believe that Selma is a nice woman, but also doesn’t want to hold anything against her husband for going about his business in a sneaky way; and even Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who shows up at the end as a prison-guard, doesn’t act like the butch, angry-as-hell woman she appears to be, but instead, turns out to be a woman who cares deeply for Selma, during her time of grief and sadness. All of these characters look, feel and sound real, even if their actions don’t always make us happy with them. Yet, we still see where these said actions come from.
But of course though, I saved the best for last with Selma. I think for anybody that knows who Björk is, knows that her music is a little bit strange, or better yet, “of a certain taste”. However, for one thing, she is a musician, and never in my mind, did I ever imagine her as an actress; a very good one, at that. There are some parts in this movie where you can see that Björk was probably left to fend for herself with this movie and with this role, which probably has to do more with von Trier’s style, but it works so well for the character of Selma, in making her a sweet, natural woman that cares for people and believes that all humans are inherently good, yet, makes some unsympathetic choices.
However, like I was speaking about before, they are all choices that come from a brutally real, honest place in her heart and soul, which is why it’s so surprising to see how great Björk is here. Sure, when she’s wailing around, singing and dancing about how grand and beautiful life can be, she’s stunning to watch, mostly because she’s in her element. But, when she steps out of those scenes and has to do more like emoting, she’s even better, which makes you wonder why she hasn’t acted in barely anything since. Sure, von Trier’s directing probably took a huge-toll on her, but what Björk does so well here is that she creates this wonderful, simple lady and gives her so much to work with, even when life seems to consistently be disappointing for her. Which, throughout the last-hour of this movie, it totally does. However, Selma keeps her hopes high, he standards for what it means to be “human”, her smile, her good-will, and most of all, her singing, dancing and daydreams about the perfect, Hollywood musical playing out in her head. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? The answer is up to!
Consensus: As usual, like most of Lars von Trier’s movies, Dancer in the Dark continues to get disturbing, just as it story begins to develop more, but what really keeps it moving at a fine, thought-provoking speed is the performances from everyone involved, and the attention to detail von Trier gives every single one of his characters, no matter how reprehensible some of them, as well as their actions, may be.
8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!