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IN SHORT: Stunning. In both the positive and negative sense of the word. [Rated R for some violence. 140 minutes]
We are in the State of Washington, home to a number of immigrants from then communist Czechoslovakia, in the Year 1964. Single mother Selma Jezkova (Björk) and her twelve year old son Gene (Vladan Kostic) live in a trailer out back of the big house owned by local cop Bill (David Morse) and his beautiful blonde spendthrift wife Linda (Cara Seymour). The pair like Selma. They watch after Gene and, for the most part, keep him out of trouble as Selma makes a living by stamping steel sinks out of sheets of metal at the J. Anderson Tool Works. It's hard work. It's dangerous, low paying work, done by people who are happy to have the income. The clanking and crunching of tons of pressure on metal offer up a rhythmic background beat that oftentimes lures Selma into a daydream state. Add to the mix the degeneration of her eyesight from a genetic disease and a double shift duty running back and forth between stamping machines and razor sharp cutting machines and Selma is an industrial accident waiting to happen.
It isn't that she doesn't have her own set of guardian angels looking after her. Besides Bill, who confides in her that Linda's spending has him on the verge of bankruptcy, there's Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), a fellow immigrant. Kathy is one of the few to know how Selma is getting around the mandatory vision checks required for her to keep her job at the plant. Kathy watches Selma's machine, knowing that one mistake on Selma's part not only brings the plant down for a day, it jeopardizes her ability to save enough money to get Gene the operation he needs, and can't have until his thirteenth birthday. There's Jeff (Peter Stormare), decidedly attracted to the shlub of a girl who isn't looking for a boyfriend. There is also Samuel (Vincent Paterson) the leader of the local drama group, which is staging The Sound of Music, in which Selma, who is devoted to the American musical style, is playing Maria.
"Nothing dreadful ever happens in Hollywood musicals" she says.
Which means there is a first time for everything. Honestly, where Dancer in the Dark goes is stunning. As in, half the audience I sat with couldn't move, due to emotion, when it was done. The other half couldn't move 'cuz we were all suffering from a "what the hell was that???" reaction.
While we'll admit that there is no industrial accident, excepting perhaps the decision to make this film, we're not going to spill much more of where the story goes, except to warn you to keep your eyes open for the appearance of Selma's "father". Big name in musical theater. Big surprise to the audience. Big story twist.
As Selma's eyesight does it's final fade out and her world becomes a place of sound and rhythm, everything from the rattle of a flagpole or the rushing of a stream inspires her to dream herself into a musical world where her imagination choreographs the dancing of all the people she imagines to be around her. Von Trier uses a constantly moving hand held camera, almost always in close-up. His intentionally mismatched jump cut style creates an effect that makes you feel as if you're eavesdropping on a script-free movie. There's a definite method to his madness and while the story takes twists we could never have imagined (and only resorts to standard track and dolly camera movements for the musical numbers) Dancer in the Dark moves so far into the absurd that we became annoyed at the preciousness of it all.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Dancer in the Dark, he would have paid...
Rental level, 'cuz we didn't buy in, emotionally. Björk, who wrote the music for von Trier's lyrics, provides a treat for her fans but her acting ability ranges from looking blissful, as her musical fugue state develops and descends to crying. [Nothing worth a Best Actress award, which she took at Cannes and not very interesting music, at least to these ears. Fans will buy the soundtrack. The rest of us sat in our seats thinking, von Trier is not going to put another musical number in here... But, of course, he did. When the "next to last" song hits, it's conclusion is inevitable.
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