Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe what happens to Björk in Dancer in the Dark. Danish writer-director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) has boldly cast the Icelandic diva as Selma, a Czech immigrant on the verge of blindness. Selma slaves in a Sixties-era rural-America sink factory — next to her friend Kathy, played by, of all people, Catherine Deneuve — to support her ten-year-old son, Gene (Vladica Kostic), who will also go blind if Selma can’t pay for an operation. Later, after rehearsals for an amateur production of The Sound of Music, Selma is forced to stop singing about “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” to face murder charges that land her on death row.
Hoo-boy, there goes the crowd that just likes a fun night at the flicks. Dancer comes frontloaded with heavy art-house artillery — the opening-night spot at the New York Film Festival, the Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with the Best Actress prize for Bjork in her first major acting role. But even at Cannes, there were boos. Selma escapes her pain by retreating into daydreams, inspired by Hollywood musicals. But not everyone will be drawn to sing along with Bjork — she did the music and lyrics — in song-and-dance numbers set to the sounds of machines and trains (“Rattle, clang, crack/Thud, whack, bam”).
Count me with the yea-sayers. For all its fancy pedigree, the spellbinding Dancer in the Dark aims right for the heart and aces its target. And Björk is thrilling, possessed of a face the camera embraces and an emotional range as compelling and varied as her music. I’m not saying von Trier doesn’t take some getting used to. This jetphobic dude won’t fly anywhere, much less the U.S., so he shot his film in Sweden, which looks nothing like the Pacific Northwest. And if you’re looking for verisimilitude about the American justice system, forget it. Like he did in The Kingdom, The Idiots, Zentropa and The Element of Crime, von Trier follows his own compass. The same goes for Bjork, whose songs for Selma represent a universe of her own creation. With the help of choreographer Vincent Paterson, who’s done videos for Madonna and Michael Jackson, and the great cinematographer Robby Moller (Dead Man), von Trier set up more than 100 digital cameras to film the action. But the landscape of Dancer is internal; it’s inside Selma’s head.
Von Trier’s film veers in many directions. Selma rejects the romance offered by Jeff (Peter Stormare), preferring an imaginary world where Czech musical-comedy star Olrich Novy (Joel Grey) is her father and she doesn’t have to scrap for money. Selma rents a trailer from Bill (David Morse), the cop who lives next door with his spendthrift wife, Linda (Cara Seymour). It’s when Bill steals the cash Selma has saved for Gene’s operation that the plot spins into tragedy. Even then, Selma’s imagination transforms the bleakness into bliss. In the film’s most touching scene, Selma dances with the dead man she’s been accused of murdering.
Von Trier springs surprises that should not be revealed. There is real filmmaking excitement here. You could argue that Dancer is a hollow stunt, a musical trick out of Ally McBeal. But cold technology is no match for Bjork’s vibrant humanity. If von Trier’s script fails to give verbal expression to Selma’s feelings for her son, it’s there in the wellspring of emotion Bjork brings to Selma’s reality and her fantasy. And it’s there in the spark of music that is Selma’s victory over the dark. Bjork gives a great performance — there’s magic in it — but perhaps due to von Trier’s punishing demands she says she won’t act again. As Selma, she sings, “I’ve seen it all/There is no more to see.” Nonsense. You’ve never seen anything like Dancer in the Dark.