Bjork as a blind martyr? Machines doubling as musical instruments? Catherine Deneuve as a factory worker? All of these things seem impossible until Dancer in the Dark comes on the screen, giving you the cinematic equivalent of a slap in the face.
Lars Von Trier's new film, which won the Palme D'Or (Best Film award) and the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival, was both cheered and booed at its opening. This film is the tragic story of Selma (Bjork), who is going blind and sacrifices everything to save her son from the same fate. To escape her sorrow, Selma lives a fantasy life inspired by her love of Hollywood musicals.
If you think a tragedy set to music is bizarre, you're not alone. Dancer is the quintessential "love it or hate it" movie. I'm throwing down the gauntlet by stating I loved this film. However, it is not for everyone. It's dark, difficult and strange, and transcends the idea that movies are merely for entertainment.
On a purely intellectual level, this film has many problems. The story is implausible and moves with all the swiftness of a congressional hearing. Catherine Deneuve's haircut looks like it cost more than the whole movie. While bothersome, it's questionable if there are actually defects in the film, or if this movie needs to be viewed in a completely different way.
In this case, opt for the latter. The grim fable of a story frees the film from conventions and allows ffon Trier to juxtapose exultation with absolute misery. The digital video used to shoot the picture is the perfect companion to the story; its gritty quality gives Selma's life a unique truth, and when she indulges in her musical fantasies, the visuals highlight the fact that even dreams are tainted by the horror of reality.
The character of Selma is both blessed and plagued by naivete. Much like ffon Trier's critical hit Breaking the Waves, the female lead is martyred for a higher purpose and is motivated by her own twisted nobility.
This is Bjork's first major role, and that inexperience works in her favour. She has a raw, earnest emotion and unlike most actresses, she doesn't seem to be playing to the camera. Her performance, like the rest of the film, conveys an honesty that's almost absent in modern cinema. As Catherine Deneuve famously said of Bjork, "She cannot act. She can only be."
This film is probably best viewed with no preconceptions. Dancer is rare for both its harrowing intensity and its profound sadness. Some may be baffled by this critique, wondering if it is a definitive thumbs-up. Think of it this way: when I went to write this review, I went back to the notes I usually take during the movie. I was so engrossed in this film I hardly wrote anything down, and that has never happened before.