Dancer In The Dark

Dancer In The Dark (2000)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer, Biographies

Writer/Director Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves) made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival this past year with his re-invention of the musical, "Dancer In the Dark." The film which won the Palm D’or for Best Film, also garnered a Best Actress award for Bjork, the Icelandic queen of all that is weird and cute about pop music. The word out of the French majestic was that people (aside from the judges) were divided right down the line, both passionately adoring and unabashedly detesting this film. And while the awards at Cannes are certainly prestigious and a major accomplishment, the trophies also leave the film under an even larger microscope for criticism and scrutiny when the rest of the world finally gets to see it and the film meets a much more diversified audience. Hitting a limited amount of theaters in the U.S., "Dancer In the Dark" didn’t do a whole lot of business but easily earned the distinction of being one of the most debated films this year. It seems that those lucky few who get to attend Cannes maybe aren’t that different from the rest of us after all. Love it or loathe it, "Dancer In the Dark" comes to DVD from New Line, giving more opportunity to keep the debate alive.

"Dancer In the Dark" is the story of Selma (Bjork), a native Czechoslovakian who has come to America so that her son can have an eye operation when he turns thirteen. The disease, which is hereditary, has forced Selma to cheat on eye exams so that she can work in a factory. Her glasses are thick and distort her eyes. They aid her vision little and she knows it is only a matter of time before she will be blind for the rest of her life. Her job is the very definition of routine and her house is nothing more than a small trailer on shared land. With all these things making for an unpleasant life, Selma takes comfort in her friends and son. She is always seen with a smile on her face, shy but friendly. There is one thing, however, that makes her smile more than anything else. Ever since she was a child, she has always loved Hollywood Musicals. So much so, that she would walk out on the next to the last song in the film so that in her mind, it would never end. So much so, that she has landed the lead in a local production of "The Sound of Music." So much so, that her imagination often creates scenes worthy of Technicolor with Selma, always the star. But more on that later.

"Dancer In the Dark" is primarily about the cost of happiness. Selma, who has worked so hard to save money for her son, shares a bond with neighbor Bill (David Morse), who works so hard to provide for his wife. While Selma is convinced that she will never love herself if she cannot prevent her son from going blind, Bill is convinced that Linda will never love him if he cannot prevent her from being poor. The major difference in their relationship is that Selma’s methods of saving money are working, and she is very close to having the required amount for the operation. Bill, however, is not so fortunate. He has lost his money, and he may lose his house. I hate to give away much more than this and I advise against watching the trailer before seeing the film itself. Happiness does come at a cost in this film. Bill sees an opportunity and takes it, but he must pay for doing so. Selma soon finds herself in a situation more bizarre than any Hollywood Musical. Can she imagine herself out of her difficulties? What will her happiness cost her? The experience is something you’ve never seen before.

So what side of the issue does this reviewer stand on? Currently, I’d have to say I’m bipartisan, though that may change in time. Not surprisingly, my problems came with the musical segments. The dramatic line of the film was entirely encapsulating to me, with Bjork leading the way. Her character is so easy to sympathize with, yet she shows a stubborn side that can make her difficult at times. Von Trier utilizes many of the specifications of the Dogme 95 movement (see Harmony Korine’s "Julien Donkey Boy"), creating a handheld wonderland that feels oh so close to a documentary. The backdrops are bleak and the sets’ look lived in and worn. There is no sense of fabrication whatsoever. And then the music begins. The script smartly sets up Selma’s elaborate daydreams by having various characters question the reality of these musicals that she loves so much. Peter Stormare’s character even bluntly remarks that he doesn’t just start singing and dancing out of the blue. But nothing can faze Selma’s obsession.

The problem I had with the musical segments, wasn’t the absurdity of having very depressed people jump and sing, rather the way they were done. For everything Selma describes affectionately about musicals, her daydreams don’t really reflect this passion. The handheld camera work is replaced by a system of 100 stationary cameras capturing every possible angle, but the scenery is exactly the same. The costumes don’t change and the backdrops are still bleak as ever. In my mind, they didn’t go far enough. Instead of various musical segments, none of which ever live up to Selma’s Hollywood favorites, why not build up her disillusionment right to the end and do one completely glorious musical segment? The music itself was also somewhat of a problem for me. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Bjork and I have been unable to get some of these songs out of my mind for days. On their own, they are terrific songs. In what appears to be early 1960’s America, the songs come across as 21st century alterna-pop. None of them sound anything like the musicals’ Selma has grown up on whatsoever. The very first song even reminds me of Stomp, or Klomp, or some other piece of crap (thanks Homer). Of course, maybe these differences are the point. Maybe Selma’s musicals would reflect her environment. If she were offering a movie to the world, maybe she would want the world to see where she comes from. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m torn! I just can’t help but feel that the musical segments could really have complimented the terrific dramatic story in a way that no other film before it has. Remember the scene in Magnolia where the cast starts to sing along with Aimee Mann’s soundtrack? It’s entirely out of the blue, but for me it works in some unspoken way. Dancer In the Dark never quite works in the same way for me, which is a shame because I really liked everything else about it. As much has been made about Bjork’s performance (and I agree, she is terrific), I would like to draw some intention to David Morse in this film. If you’ve only seen him in Contact or The Green Mile, I think you may be surprised to see how good he really is. There is a very dark scene that you will recognize immediately when you see it, where Morse almost scares me he is so good. One of the most under-appreciated performances of the year, for sure.

Presented in 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, I was surprised by how good this transfer looks. Having said that, please be aware that it as shot on digital video and then blown up on film for the theatrical release. Although I did not see this in the theaters, my personal opinion of any kind of video projected on a big screen is that it looks so much worse than on a standard television. The film is very bleak, but there are a lot of greens and blues in the film that are separated nicely in this transfer. Detail is sharp, but will not be what you are typically used to seeing. Because the film was shot mostly handheld, you’ll notice a good bit of blur and digital noise with the movement of the camera, but it’s something you can get used to. I was particularly impressed with the extreme close ups in the film, which were much sharper than what I had expected. I think overall, New Line has done their typical outstanding job with this film. It does not look like the rest of their releases, so lower your expectations a little and you’ll find a lot to like about this transfer.

Surprisingly for an art house film, audio on this disc includes both a <$DD,Dolby Digital> and <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 track. Along with a Dolby 2.0 and two <$commentary,commentary track>s, that’s a pretty full plate for your ears. It’s not a surprise that the DTS track sounds a bit fuller than the Dolby Digital track, but both are somewhat limited due to the nature of the film. Obviously, the musical segments are what really pull the weight here, and generally sound great. Dialogue sounds a bit thin for my tastes and there were a few occasions where I felt like I was missing a line. Again, this is mainly due to the production value of the film and desire of the director.

New Line has always been ahead of the game in the special features department and "Dancer In the Dark" is no exception. First up, we have a running commentary with Von Trier, Producer Vibeke Windelov, Technical Supervisor Peter Hjorth and Artist Per Kirkeby. Not unlike what Criterion has done in the past, we are given a moderator who introduces each individual speaker as to avoid confusion. A pretty involved commentary, the accents at time can be a bit difficult at first, but you’ll get used to it. Von Trier is extremely well spoken and expresses his intentions clearly, specifically going into great detail about the choices he made with the musical segments. A second commentary is provided with choreographer Vincent Paterson, which was surprisingly quite good. I was fairly positive I wouldn’t care about how the dancers were lined up or whatever, but Peterson told more about the beginnings of the movie than the guys in the other track did. From Von Trier’s original conception to what Peterson brought to the screen is vastly different and it’s interesting to hear about the changes. Also on the disc, are two Featurettes. Like the commentaries, one deals with the technical aspects while the other is focused on the choreography. The first, entitled 100 Cameras, goes into further detail about Von Trier’s original idea to set up 100 stationary cameras and film the musical segments as a live event. It didn’t exactly pan out the way they planned and it’s fairly interesting seeing the footage of the process, but overall I found this featurette a bit amateurish. The footage isn’t terribly interesting to look at, and the interview with Von Trier seems as if they interrupted him while he was taking a much-needed nap. The second featurette, called "Choreography – Creating Vincent Paterson’s Dance Sequences," and is slightly better. Again, the interview footage isn’t that impressive, but the inclusion of many of Paterson’s personal videos from rehearsals and on-set help keep it interesting. Next up are alternate scenes, which has three different versions of two of the musical segments. Because of all the footage they had from the 100 cameras, it’s kind of neat to see how differently they edited these segments. The video is rougher than what is in the film, but it’s still a nice feature on the disc. If you do find you really like the music in "Dancer In the Dark," you’ll appreciate the direct access to the segments in a feature called Selma’s Music. Finally, the far too revealing theatrical trailer is included, as well as a link to the film’s website for those of you with a DVD-ROM drive.

"Dancer In the Dark" is not a movie for everyone. It’s not entirely a musical and it’s not entirely a drama. It is however, entirely, unique and if for no other reason, it deserves a long shelf life and to be seen by as many people as possible. If you’re a big Bjork fan, than I have no doubt that you will find a lot to love about this DVD. If not, I’d still highly recommend you give this movie a chance. It will certainly give you something to argue about!