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Film Review: Dancer in the Dark

Anna gets drawn in by Bj?k's big screen debut. Utterly.

In a musical nothing bad happens but when you mix imaginative dance sequences and inventive rhythms of ordinary sounds with the gritty, handheld, heart wrenching realism of Lars Von Triers’ cinema, rules are broken and boundaries are left unfocussed in the distance. This film and Selma’s (Bj?k) plight dug its claws deep into my heart from the first 20 minutes on, leaving me frustrated, angry and completely moved. It is certainly difficult to sustain this movie with dry eyes and even the most hardened cinema goers, immune to emotional button pressing, will find themselves challenged by Bj?k’s powerful performance which won her best actress at Cannes this year.

Bjork - Dancer in the DarkSet sometime in 1960s America (but shot in Europe), 'Dancer in the Dark' tells the story of a Czechoslovakian immigrant, Selma, who struggles through her daily routine of work and play with failing eyesight. It is unclear how much Selma can see but as the narrative takes us further into the bleak circumstances of her life, it is obvious she is descending into deeper darkness. Seemingly unperturbed by her disability Selma lives a life brightened by her fascination with musicals. Unlike previous attempts to recycle this movie genre, Von Triers injects some very new ideas into the form creating a true digital musical which mixes social realism with flights of fantasy. Selma works extremely hard to save the money needed to pay for her son's eye operation that will prevent him from ever suffering the loss of sight which she has endured. Fairness however is not a reality is this proud mother’s life, and while she is out toiling in the factory her landlord and friend (who has his own money problems) steals her savings and leads her to the point of no return. Desperate to get her money back, Selma does what she has to do, even at the risk of losing everything she has, including her life.

'Dancer in the Dark' presents music as an escape, a refuge, a site of altered perceptions. The music in this movie is certainly unlike any old Hollywood sing-along. The supporting vocalists are human, not adept at singing. The lyrics are simplistic. The beats taken from the clanging of machines or the chuck-a-chucka mantra of passing trains. They are the songs of the heart, performed like a dramatic play inside the mind of child-like women in need of an uplifting surrounding. This film tells us how music and dance can assist in survival, but also, distort the harsh realities of life. Just as we all hear a song differently, Selma ‘sees’ the world with different eyes. Sometimes what you can see is not what is in front of you and often those who are weak are far stronger on other grounds. Selma is loyal, despite all consequences and true to her duties as a Mother.

The reason this film is so touching is the performances are very real and emotional, almost like improvisations. Added to this, the amateur camcorder style filming owed to the dogme 95 tradition, places the viewers in a position of watching ‘real life’ unfold. The relationships Selma forges with everyone she encounters, from the wonderful Catherine Denueve to the character of the prison guard, are extremely intense and effecting. Towards the end of the film the girl beside me took off her glasses in what I thought was a moment of solidarity. It was however, to mop the stream of tears running down her face.

Dancer in the Dark is a movie that will ask you questions and leave you shuddering for days. It might offer little redemption but at least it will make you feel the basic human emotion of empathy, which after all, is the aim of most movies. If it only teaches you one thing let it be “listen to your heart”, for this, despite all risks, is the only way to live.

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

Anna Keeling


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