Dancer in the Dark (2000)

DANCER IN THE DARK, ladies and gentlemen, a movie where Peter Stor-
mare sings.  What?!?!  Steve Buscemi's not-so-little buddy from FAR-
GO?  Yup.  But more on Mr. Woodchipper later.  First, let's pick 
some bones with Great Dane director Lars van Trier.  Remember him, 
the handheld-silly filmmaker whose BREAKING THE WAVES thrust Emily 
Watson upon an unsuspecting world?  This time, his impassioned, sa-
crificial heroine is Icelandic pop singer (and first-time actress) 
Bjork as a young, single, Czech-bounced mother living in America in 
1964.  She's a small-town factory worker, struggling to raise enough 
dough so her son, twelve, can have an operation, so he won't go 
blind from the hereditary time bomb that's already ticking.  Trouble 
is that mom's already losing *her* sight.  Oh, she's fooled the doc-
tor, but those machine-presses are becoming more dangerous by the 
day.  As are the train tracks she takes as a shortcut walking home.  
Plot thickeners include a guy with an old truck whose sweet on her 
(Stormare) and a soft-speaking, secret-confiding cop (David Morse) 
whose wife watches the boy during the day.  They also own a trailer 
'round back that the young mother rents.  So far?

Now, the whole thing is filmed in the style of an old home-movie, 
using a BLAIR WITCH-certified handheld camera and a bleached, fuzzy-
looking film stock.  The resulting documentary-like effect is *in-
stantly* riveting, however, because of Bjork.  (Ms. Bjork?  Mrs.
Bjork?  Mork from Bjork?)  She grabs from the get-go, her perform-
ance as strong and believable as any of her veteran scene sharers.
The person she *plays*, on the other hand, isn't sketched nearly as 
strongly.  At first, she's characterized as somewhat "slow"-- think-
ing, that is, not moving-- but the trait disappears as her character 
becomes clearer.  Also jarring is the actress's apparent age, which 
wavers between scenes by twenty years or more!  (The varying film 
stocks do it, as does her simply removing her glasses.)  Still with 
us?  Okay, now here's the catch:  the movie's also a musical!  With 
seven, fully-choreographed song-and-dance numbers!  And even an pre-
credits overture!  The daydream-depicting sign-alongs are shot on a 
different stock that's still grainy-looking but brighter colored.  
Trier even employs a stationary camera, thank God. What he *doesn't* 
do, though, is cut the quick-cutting.  Which is why the production 
numbers play like *highlights* of production numbers.

As for the songs, they sound like electro-pop blended new-age with 
wailing, atonal vocals.  Yuck, 'cept for the rhythms, which are ex-
ceptionally interesting, each based on percussive sounds from the 
preceding scene.  Like pounding machinery.  Or clicky-clacky train 
tracks.  The latter is also where Stormy Weather sings.  Or speak-
sings and only a couple of lines at that.  But it's during a duet 
and the effect is absolutely jarring.  We're talkin' instant grits-
and-just-add-water flashbacks to those big, blown-it Hollywood mu-
sicals where someone like, oh, Clint Eastwood was called upon to 
croon.  (PAINT YOUR WAGON, 1969.)  Mercifully, the moment is short-
lived.  Just a few seconds, really, and it's over.  Except... it 
happens again, this time during dialogue.  A character draws a gun  
(using a pen) and the scene suddenly *explodes* with nuclear blast-
force histrionics.  And we're back to watching an awful movie.  Min-
utes instead of seconds pass and again it's over.  Did I mention the 
running time is 140 minutes?  Alas, the cycle repeats itself and 
right through to the livin' end, for an overblown, overheated, over-
everything finale that quite possibly contains more melodrama per 
square-inch than any other dramatic scene in the history of cinema.  
I'd long since stopped taking the movie seriously, so I wasn't even 
*remotely* in danger of being affected.  Methinks others in the au-
dience on Friday night felt the same way, as I heard quite a bit of 
giggling after the credits rolled.  With Catherine Deneuve, Vincent 
Paterson, Cara Seymour, Jean-Marc Barr, Vladica Kostic, Siobhan Fal-
lon, Zeljko Ivanek, creepy Udo Kier, a thin Stellan Skarsgerd, and 
Joel Grey in a well-disguised cameo.  (Rated "R"/140 min.)

Grade: C-

Copyright 2000 by Michael J. Legeros
Movie Hell is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros

Originally posted to triangle.movies as MOVIE HELL: Groaner in the Light

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Copyright 2001 by Michael J. Legeros -Movie Hell™ is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros