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Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Dancer in the Dark is a 2000 Danish musical drama film directed by Lars von Trier and starring Icelandic singer Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Peter Stormare, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, and Joel Grey. The soundtrack for the film, released as the album Selmasongs, was written mainly by Björk, but a number of songs featured contributions from Mark Bell and the lyrics were by von Trier and Sjón. Three songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music were also used in the film. Dancer in the Dark is the third film in Lars von Trier's "Golden Heart Trilogy;" the previous two films were Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998). The film was an international co-production between companies based in several countries: Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, United States, United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Norway. It was shot with a handheld camera, and was somewhat inspired by a Dogme 95 look. Dancer in the Dark premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to standing ovations and controversy and was awarded the Palme d'Or, along with the Best Actress award for Björk.
Selma, as played to perfection by the almost childlike Björk, does her share of singing and dancing, but she's got a reason: It's all in her head. And with that said, get ready for the creepiest, most depressing, and certainly the most unique movie musical ever put on film.
At its heart, Dancer in the Dark is the simple story of Selma, a Czech immigrant to a small town somewhere in America, somewhere in the recent past. By day she works in a factory stamping out metal cafeteria-style tubs. By night she attaches bobby pins by hand to cardboard displays, readying them for sale, all to raise a little extra cash. Frugal with her money, Selma saves every penny because she is quickly going blind due to an unnamed genetic disorder. But her son can avoid the same fate if he undergoes an operation -- to which all Selma's savings are being put. Naturally, dad is long gone.
Her only thrills are evenings out watching (as best she can) old Hollywood musicals with her friend Kathy (a sparkling Catherine Deneuve), plus her chance to star as Maria in the local theatrical production of The Sound of Music. If only she could see the other actors....
For those not paying attention, Selma's life is obviously set up for some serious tragedy, and it doesn't take long before Selma has gone suddenly and totally blind, she's lost her job, and her savings have disappeared from the trailer home she lives in. On paper, this all sounds like either a soap opera or a country-western song, but believe me, on screen it goes well beyond the clichés of melodrama and into the realm of near-genius, the tale of a truly lost soul told by Danish auteur Lars von Trier as only he could tell it.
Dancer's charm lies in its conceit: To escape her melancholy, Selma imagines herself as part of the musicals she enjoys so much. She daydreams one musical after another, where people do suddenly begin to sing and dance, and where she is the star. One second, she's cranking out metal tubs, the next the factory is a hive of tap-dancing, jumping, spinning, and singing workers, each wielding a broom or a hammer as a prop or musical instrument. It's Stomp by way of Laverne and Shirley.
Before long, the line between Selma's fantasy and reality has blurred, just as her life has become so miserable it can't get any worse. But of course it does get worse, and watching Selma slip down to her fate is both gut-wrenching and, oddly, richly rewarding.
When every movie coming out of Hollywood is the same as the last, it's wonderful to see something with astonishing originality that defies comparison. Lars von Trier is no stranger to challenging fare, with work that includes Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and the Danish hospital soap The Kingdom, all rich psychodramas that semi-adhere to his Dogme 95 principles of shooting in available light, on location, and with hand-held cameras. Dancer is probably his best work to date, and with the film winning best picture and a well-deserved best female performance (for Björk) at Cannes, I'm not alone in this assessment. For its acting and ability o generate an emotional response, I don't think you'll see a more capable film this year.
Then again, of course, there's the slapdash editing -- a trademark of von Trier's -- that can be nauseating and ineffective. At 2 1/3 hours in length, the often poor pacing is also responsible for robbing Dancer of some of its passion. Perhaps my biggest complaint, however, regards the songs that lilt out during Selma's daydreams. Composed and performed by Björk herself, the music doesn't stand up on its own, unlike the memorable tunes in The Sound of Music, a constant reference point for the movie. In Dancer, the songs are unilaterally middling, most notably the final fantasy production number, which one would expect to be a real smash, but is actually the worst of the bunch.
Gripes aside, Dancer in the Dark is bound to be a film that frustrates as many viewers as it pleases. The movie is long, with difficult material and a deeply disturbing theme that tells us, indeed, we can't always get what we want. Hollywood would have us believe otherwise. That Selma shines through it all is a testament to Björk's ability as an actress (which she has reportedly now sworn off for good), von Trier's ability as a teller of tragedy, and the audience's ability to enjoy a movie that just doesn't 'feel good.' But trust me, you can take it.
Dancer in the day.