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DANCER IN THE DARK

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
Director:  Lars von Trier
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  141 Minutes
Release Date:  March 20, 2001

Film ****

Dancer in the Dark is a visionary and original film: as enchanting as it is heartbreaking, and as whimsical as it is gritty.  It boasts a glorious lead performance by Icelandic songstress Bjork and impeccable craftsmanship by director Lars von Trier. 

After a visually hypnotic overture, the picture switches gears to begin its story:  shot mostly on video and with lots of unstructured, hand-held camera work, we are introduced to Selma (Bjork), a single mother with a love of musicals who works in a factory and hides a secret:  she is rapidly going blind from a genetically inherited condition.  Her young son will one day lose his sight too, we are told, but she has been saving her meager earnings to pay for an operation that will save his eyes.  In the meantime, the two live like paupers with the boy never receiving so much as a birthday gift in his young life.

Selma’s escape, as she loses her vision, is into a world of music.  Studying for the role of Maria in a small production of The Sound of Music, she does the best she can for as long as she can, even relying on her friend Kathy (Deneuve) to tell her how many steps to a mark, and so on.  She hears music in the noises all around her, and from time to time, she escapes the bleakness of her world into daydreams scored by the sounds of machines, or pens scratching on paper, or whatever.  These scenes lose the videotape in favor of film for a more cultivated and artificial look; appropriate enough for the fantasies.

But life never ceases for dreamers.   Selma has become a danger to herself and to her employers because of her handicap (she had escaped discovery by memorizing the plant’s eye chart for exams).  Her meager stash of money seems like an easy way out for a browbeaten cop (Morse), who is terrified of telling his wife he’s really broke.  Events go from bad to worse, and from painfully sad to unabashedly tragic as Selma’s world spins out of control.

I don’t want to go into details and spoil the unfolding events…I knew very little about the picture going in, and afterwards felt that aspect definitely enhanced my enjoyment.  Lars von Trier is a director whose films haven’t catered to every taste, but from his first major film The Element of Crime and onward, I’ve found him a consistently innovative and daring filmmaker.  Dancer in the Dark is his masterpiece.

Not enough can be said about Bjork’s performance as Selma, though.  Having never been a big fan of the singer or her music, I was more than surprised by what she offered in this picture…I was bowled over.  She’s since stated she would never make another film, and I can only hope she changes her mind.  If not, her work will be remembered along with other great one-time-only performances, like Marie Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Bjork’s work is achingly honest, and filled with emotion, passion, and humanity.   She certainly should have earned Oscar recognition.

Dancer in the Dark has proven that it won’t please everybody, though, to be honest, I can’t imagine anyone not loving this picture.  It dares to be different, yes, but it never sacrifices heart or intelligence for the sake of style.   It blends fantasy and reality and juxtaposes them in ways that are both magical and heartbreaking.  It’s easily one of the best films of last year, and deserves to find a newer and bigger audience on DVD.

Video ***1/2

New Line triumphs again with a quality anamorphic presentation.  Though the video stock offers some limitations, the transfer preserves the integrity of the original images with good color and detail, and sharpness or softness depending on the appropriateness of the lighting and structure.  The musical numbers are even better, with a stronger clarity, crisper images and brighter colors…the contrast between the two is purposeful and effective.  Overall, a quality offering.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is engrossing and potent, with strong dynamic range, crystal clarity, and careful attention to detail.   As the droning of the machinery turns into music, the multi-channel mix brings Selma’s fantasies to vibrant life.  Crossovers from front to back and side to side are smooth and well executed, and all stages benefit from the harmonious audio.  Excellent!

Features ****

Platinum Series discs always mean features galore, and Dancer is no exception.  Two commentary tracks highlight the DVD, starting with Lars von Trier and his crew (an informative and detailed listen), and a more sparse one by choreographer Vincent Paterson.   There are two documentaries, again, one on von Trier and one on Paterson, though the former has more to do with von Trier overall than with this film specifically.  There is a song by song access menu, talent files, alternate scenes, and a trailer, plus a promo for the film’s soundtrack.

Summary:

Dancer in the Dark is an exhilarating, original, and unforgettable achievement.  Lars von Trier’s unique visionary talents come to full fruition in this lovely, unusual and moving tragic tale with a first rate cast led by Bjork’s likely only film appearance.  With this quality DVD offering from New Line Cinema, this is one no movie lover should pass up.  Highly, highly recommended.