Dancer in the Dark [DVD]
Screenplay : Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Björk (Selma), Catherine Deneuve (Kathy), David Morse (Bill), Peter Stormare (Jeff), Udo Kier (Dr. Porkorny), Joel Grey (Oldrich Novy), Vincent Paterson (Samuel), Cara Seymour (Linda), Jean-Marc Barr (Norman), Vladan Kostic (Gene)
After its premier at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, where it eventually won the coveted Palm d'or, Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark was met equally with intense celebratory applause and boos of vociferous condemnation. It has since divided audiences and critics straight down the middle: either you love it or you hate it. Von Trier is either a boundary-pushing genius or he is a ego-maniacal sadist.
Considering that I was one of the few critics who did not appreciate his brutal ode to masochistic female self-sacrifice, Breaking the Waves (1996), I tend to fall toward the latter camp. Part of me can appreciate what von Trier was attempting to do in Dancer in the Dark, but a stronger part is incensed by his equal-parts mixture of kitschy aesthetics, overblown melodrama, and genuine emotional turmoil. Von Trier is a filmmaker who loves to outrage, visually and thematically. His 1998 film, The Idiots (Idioterne), which was his first and so-far only entry under the strict Dogma 95 tenets of filmmaking , was a classic example. Following a group of people who purposefully act in public as though they are mentally handicapped, the film was both an provocative examination of social mores and a thorough insult to anyone with a handicap. It's hard to know if he's truly transgressive or just immensely insensitive.
The central character of Dancer in the Dark is Selma (played by Icelandic pop singer Björk), an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who works at a factory pressing metal sinks in rural Washington state in the early 1960s. Selma has a degenerative genetic condition that is causing her to go blind, and she has been secretly saving all her money in order to pay for surgery for her son, Gene (Vladan Kostic), to ensure that he does not suffer the same fate.
Like Emily Watson's Bess in Breaking the Waves, Selma is a simple-minded, child-like woman who is willing to sacrifice herself in order to save another. In this case, Selma is trying to save her son, as opposed to Bess, who endured sexual degradation of immense proportions for her paralyzed husband (the fact that both characters are childish women who pay the ultimate price to serve men is an arguably misogynistic pattern that should not be overlooked).
Björk, who suffered so much psychological abuse while filming that she has pledged never to make another movie (she was rewarded, if that's the right word, with the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival), is a natural actress with an unforgettable presence, although one cannot imagine her playing many other roles. Her performance is a knock-out, mostly because it veers between wrenching and infuriating. Some moments in which Selma suffers for her cause are emotionally devastating; others are maddening because she responds with the same, unconvincing impish smile that almost seems to suggest that she is enjoying her martyrdom (or at least von Trier wants us to think she is).
Selma's plan to save her son is thwarted when her neighbor, a kindly but distraught police officer named Bill (David Morse), confides in her that he is broke and cannot bring himself to tell his wife. Bill eventually steals Selma's money, and her attempt to retrieve it culminates in Bill's brutal death. Taking the witness stand at her murder trial, Selma refuses to divulge information that could possible spare her the death penalty because she made a promise to Bill (which, by the way, he betrayed).
This is only one of many clumsy narrative conceits designed to ensure Selma's infinite suffering (the other big one being that she cannot let Gene know about his impending genetic condition because "worrying about it might make his eyes worse"). Watching the film, it is hard to resist the suspicion that the whole thing is a ruse to satisfy some deep-seated sadistic urge in von Trier's artistic psyche; one cannot help but wonder if he set the film in Washington for the simple reason that it was one of the few states left in the 1960s that still used the dramatically vicious form of hanging as its statutory method of capital punishment.
Of course, the one aspect of Dancer in the Dark that has really thrown viewers is the fact that, for all intents and purposes, it is a musical. Although shot on hand-held, digital video, the film features some half-dozen music-and-dance numbers that take place in Selma's mind. Featuring songs written and performed by Björk as strange hybrids of her particular brand of industrial pop and show-stopping Broadway numbers, these sequences are like The Sound of Music reproduced as stunningly bad music videos. Willfully bad. Even taking into account that they represent Selma's psychological escape from her hard-luck life (the video image even brightens and colors become more vivid during these scenes), they are still grating in their vacant campy delight. Simply put, they belong in another movie, which is most likely the exact reason why von Trier decided to include them.
Whether you feel that von Trier is a true artist or a creative fraud, Dancer in the Dark is a film that needs to be seen to be believed. If that sounds like damning praise, it is. I can't bring myself to detest the film in the manner expressed by some, yet I am at a loss to see how some critics find it as outstanding as they did. Throughout its 2-hours and 20-minute running length (it would be half that long without the musical interludes), there are enough moments of genuine emotionalism that it becomes hard to conceive of von Trier as a complete sham. Yet, his approach to his material is so willfully preposterous and at times irritating, that it is difficult to fully appreciate what he is trying to do, if, in fact, he even knows for sure.
|Dancer in the Dark: Platinum Series DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Supplements|| Two audio commentaries:|
Selma's Music: Direct access to nine musical sequences
Alternate versions of two musical sequences
Cast and crew filmographies
Original theatrical trailer
Original theatrical web site (DVD-ROM)
|Distributor||New Line Cinema|
|Dancer in the Dark has a strange visual quality in that it was originally filmed on digital video and then carefully transferred to film. Thus, the image quality looks like you would expect high-resolution digital video to look--visually sharp, but somewhat flat in terms of depth with little contrast. It doesn't have the slick, well-saturated appearance of celluloid, yet the anamorphic transfer on this DVD is still visually compelling. As New Line has been responsible for some of the best transfers on the market, I can't believe this image could be made to look much better than it does. Unlike von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996), which was shot on film and then converted to video and then back to film again, the intent was not to create an excessively grainy image. Quite the contrary, the image on this disc is quite smooth, with little suggestion of the lines of resolution inherent to the video image (the edges of objects, particularly those in motion, do look pixelated from time to time, which is not the fault of the transfer). The film's color scheme is fairly dull, with great emphasis on brown and gray, with the exception of the musical sequences, which are rendered in much brighter and livelier colors that look excellent. The image here is presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1, which was achieved by fitting a special anamorphic lens on the video camera during filming (video cameras normally film in an academy ratio of 1.33:1, and the only other way to get a widescreen image would have been a hard matte).|
|Available in a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, a DTS 5.1 surround mix, or a two-channel stereo mix, the soundtrack sounds fantastic. While the image quality has a kind of misleadingly amateurish appearance with its hand-held video aesthetic, the soundtrack is technically top-notch and shows it. The music sounds excellent throughout, with good use of the surround speakers and an effective employment of the low-end frequency effects. BjŲrk's music is something of an acquired taste, but it is musically inventive with a creative mixture of traditional and electronic instruments that are beautifully rendered on this disc.|
|The two feature-length audio commentaries are definitely worth listening to, as they illuminate not only the artistic intentions of the film, but also the inordinate amount of work that went into making it (don't be fooled that it was low-budget just because it was shot on video--von Trier definitely left the tenets of Dogma 95 behind him when making this movie). |
The first commentary is a filmmaker commentary with writer/director Lars von Trier; producer Vibeke WindelÝv, who also produced Breaking the Waves and The Idiots; technical supervisor Peter Hjorth; and artist Per Kirkeby, who opens with a brief discussion of the digital paintings he provided for the film's overture. Von Trier makes a particularly interesting comment at one point, when he says that has always thought of himself as having good taste; thus, whenever he ventures into territory that might be considered "bad taste" (as some critics have described both this movie and, more particularly, The Idiots), he isn't afraid. The second commentary is dedicated exclusively to choreographer Vincent Paterson, who also choreographed The Birdcage (1996) and Evita (1996), as well as Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1988), discussing how he created the film's musical sequences.
The disc also included two documentaries. The 15-minute 100 Cameras: Capturing Lars von Trier's Vision focuses on von Trier's now infamous use of 100 video cameras filming simultaneously to capture the "I've Seen It All" sequence (the result wasover 68 hours of footage that had to be edited down to about 10 minutes). Decide for yourself whether you think the use of 100 cameras made any difference in the final product. For the record, I find it to be an interesting experiment that didn't result in anything more visually compelling than a typical montage edited together from only a few camera set-ups and several takes (although, to be fair, when von Trier first conceived of the idea, the intention was to film the whole sequence live in only one take).
The second documentary, Choreography: Capturing Vincent Paterson's Dance Sequences, runs just over 20 minutes in length and includes a lot of behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage of Paterson and the dancers working on the musical sequences, both in the studio and on the set. It also includes some interesting footage of a music sequence near the end that never made it into the movie.
Demonstrating how important editing was to the film, the disc includes rough-cut alternate versions of two musical sequences, "Cvalda" and "I've Seen It All" (of which there are two alternate versions). While I think the versions that wound up in the finished product were better, the alternate versions are interesting for comparative purposes, especially for those viewers who really like to scrutinize editing decisions.
For those who are fans of BjŲrk's music, the disc includes a handy feature that allows you to jump straight to any one the film's nine musical sequences, which also includes the overture and the end credits. Also included are brief cast and crew filmographies, the original theatrical trailer, and, for those with a DVD-ROM drive and a PC, the entire original theatrical web site. Also, it should be noted that New Line has been good enough to present everything on the disc, from the documentaries to the theatrical trailer, in anamorphic widescreen.
©2000, 2001 James Kendrick