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Dancer in the Dark
2000 - R - 141 Mins.
Director: Lars von Trier
Producer: Vibeke Windelov
Written By: Lars von Trier
Starring: Udo Kier, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Jean-Marc Barr, Stellan Skarsgard
Review by: David Trier
Let's be honest. If you go to the movies to see buildings blow up, car chases, and the occasional decapitation, you're not going to be affected by Dancer in the Dark. On the other hand, if you go for mindless fluff, handsome men falling in love with unattainable women, doing silly things to get some nookie, then Dancer in the Dark... will also be completely lost on you. This is a movie for people who like to talk about "why they attend the cinema." People like me. People who smile at the successes of protagonists, who fight off tears in the second act but swear they aren't depressed, who watch the screen with bugged out eyes and a dropped jaw.

Selma (Bjork) is a Czchecklosvakian (I'll give anyone a dollar who can swear they know how to spell that) immigrant working day in day out at a tool factory in the state of Washington, 1964. She is a single mother of a twelve year old boy and she rents a trailer from Bill (David Morse), a policeman. Selma has a genetic disease that's making her go blind and so does her son but he doesn't know it yet. Her only hope is to earn enough cash to pay for her son to have surgery before he starts to lose his vision. In the midst of all this poverty and hard work, Selma has musicals to dream about, where nothing bad ever happens and everything works out just fine. Her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) takes her to the movies and musical theater classes and keeps her from getting in trouble daydreaming at work. When her landlord, Bill, confesses to Selma that his inherited money is all gone and he needs a loan, she apologizes but insists the little money she has is for her son. Knowing that she can barely see, he spies on her and steals the money she had been hiding. When she confronts him, he forces her to shoot him. A fugitive, what kind of chances can a strange little immigrant have? I decided I'll only ruin the endings to movies where the endings aren't honest (or suck). This one needs to be seen.

This movie more than any other has solidified my suspicion that Lars von Trier is one of the best film directors ever to grace the medium. The first film of his I saw, Zentropa, I hold highly accountable for my love of film in the first place. Before I feel compelled to review it right here and now I suggest you go rent it. Later he added the Danish supernatural miniseries The Kingdom and the disturbing drama Breaking the Waves to the world. An artist under the strictest of definitions, von Trier knows how to make a movie. To describe his works, particularly this last one, is to employ the words "brave" and "profound." The recent boundaries he's set for himself for the past few films have included hand-held cameras only. Honestly, this is kind of annoying. It does offer a unique grittiness to the realism of the scene, but it also makes it difficult to focus your eyes whenever the camera moves. For the musical numbers, though, he did use mostly stationary or tracking shots, and eventually your eyes adjust to the hand-held format anyway.

OK, Bjork is weird. No other way to put it. I remember her from about a decade ago when she sang with the Sugarcubes and guest-sang on some 808 State tracks. I thought she was weird then. When she came out with her solo albums, I thought, good music, but she's freakin' weird. For one thing, she has an elusive style of singing that makes you wonder if she's actually on the right note. She has a breathy, childlike voice, yet at the same time, she brings such a passion and, well, weirdness, to her songs, you just have to admit you like it. But who would have guessed that she would be a great actress? She has a screen presence and sense of subtlety that most actors never achive even after years of training and work. Due to a large extent I'm sure by von Trier's directing skills, this movie has no "acting." Totally believable people in traumatic circumstances. The supporting stars help carry the film tremendously. Catherine Deneuve, a veteran French star, is strong and believable. David Morse, despite having the misfortune of looking uncannily like Bill Clinton, just nails a complex character worthy of his talent. Peter Stormare plays Jeff, the town simpleton in love with Selma. Most people will recognize him as the quiet killer in Fargo or one of the bad guys in The Lost World, but this guy is one versatile character actor. There's going to be a lot more of him I'm sure. Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgard, all von Trier favorites from previous films, help to round out the cast. Siobhan Fallon, recognizable mostly from being on Seinfeld a couple of times, probably has the most outstanding supporting role in the film as a prison guard.

Now, this actually is a musical with actual musical numbers and some people can't handle that format. I hate musicals, but the way it's approached in this movie is just spellbinding. And the songs aren't your typical musical fare. They're more like Bjork's other songs with the techno edge being more subtle, the melodies more pronounced, and of course, choreographed dance numbers. They all start out with some real sound, the repetitive clanging of a tool machine, a train, footsteps, and then grow into songs. The movie is just amazing. Any editing flaws or plot problems are completely overuled by powerful performances and expert filmmaking. It doesn't make excuses or apologize for each scene. It makes firm decisions and follows through. It's not for everyone, but this is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I cried. Maybe I'm just a girly-man. But I was moved, not just manipulated, and that's why I attend the cinema.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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