Dancer in the Dark

Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Udo Kier, Joel Grey.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence.

Review by Matt Heffernan <>
October 12, 2000

It's been a long, hard year. So much mediocrity, so little inspiration. After watching the horrible Get Carter, I had nearly lost all hope of feeling anything in a theatre again except for some mild amusement and frequent disgust. The very next day, that dark cloud would be lifted, and I would see the best film that I have seen all year.

Dancer in the Dark is the latest film from Danish director Lars von Trier, who co-founded the Dogme95 movement, which has produced minimalist films such as The Celebration and Mifune. Dancer in the Dark follows many of the Dogme principles, but it is not an official Dogme film. In fact, it has the irony of being (relatively) highly produced and shot on video instead of film, like the others. But that's not where this film really breaks convention.

Icelandic pop singer Björk plays Selma, a woman who moved to Washington State in the 1960s from Czechoslovakia with her son, Gene (Vladan Kostic). She finds work operating a steel press, even though her eyesight is failing. Within a year, she will be completely blind, so she is trying to make as much money as possible. She tells everybody, including her son, that she is sending money to her father in Europe, but she is really saving up for an eye operation for Gene, who will also lose his sight unless he his treated.

At the factory, Selma makes friends with Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), who helps cover for her eyesight. She also befriends her landlord, Bill (David Morse) -- a cop who has inherited a small fortune. However, Bill's wife, Linda (Cara Seymour), has spent it all. Selma and Bill share their financial secrets with each other, which leads to a very complicated situation.

As you probably know, Dancer in the Dark has been called a musical, since it features musical numbers written by Björk for the film. You can see by the plot that this is not a typical story for a musical, because this film technically isn't a musical. The numbers are fantasies of Selma, who is obsessed with American musicals. She finds music in the rhythm of everyday life, in machines and trains and pencils scratching paper. In the "real-life" sequences, von Trier slightly desaturates the video's color. When the fantasies begin, the colors brighten, and Selma can enact her fantasies of singing and dancing with the people around her.

The songs are very simple, lyrically, reflecting the childlike nature of Selma. They are the pleasant conversations she wishes to have, since in a musical, as she says, "nothing dreadful ever happens." Yet through this simplicity, Björk sings with incredible passion, using her voice in ways no other artist would even attempt.

The real focus of this film, though, is on the dreadful things that do happen in the non-musical world. I don't want to give any more of the plot away (as the ads so imprudently do), but I will leave you with my final impression of the film's incredible power: I walked to my car to drive home, but I could barely compose myself enough to get there without crying. No other film has moved me in this way for years. Trying to judge it by conventional standards is impossible. All I can say is that it is a revelation, and it is doubtful that any other film will surpass it for the rest of the year.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Dancer in the Dark (2000)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan