The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.
Dancer in the Dark 
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
Runtime: 140 Minutes
My experience with Lars von Trier is limited to the movie Antichrist. While that film was brutal and absolutely horrifying at times, it captivated me in a way that most recent titles have rarely been able to do. It was clear to me that von Trier is a talented director, and I was eager to see more of his work. This led me to Dancer in the Dark, von Trier’s intriguing version of a musical.
The ever-enigmatic Björk stars as Selma, a Czech immigrant who works endless hours to save up money for eye surgery for her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). A hereditary degenerative disease is causing her to go blind, and she wants her son to have the surgery at a young age to hopefully prevent this from happening to him as well. Selma picks up shifts at all hours of the night, trying to maximize her work schedule before she cannot see at all. She also has a passion for musicals, and has been practicing for a role in a local play. Selma is a bit scatterbrained, to put it mildly, and she frequently goes off into her own little world in the form of daydreams. This is where the film delves into its own version of a musical, as her daydreams transform her surroundings into wild song and dances.
There are others in Selma’s life as well. Her best friend, Cvalda (Catherine Deneuve), is a fellow co-worker who always looks out for Selma and takes care of her in times of need. Selma is renting a trailer home on the property of local policeman Bill Houston (David Morse) and his wife Linda (Cara Seymour), both of whom assist her by watching Gene while he is alone. Finally, there is Jeff (Peter Stormare), another co-worker who is infatuated with Selma and does anything he can to help her out.
With so many positive influences in Selma’s life, it sounds like a peaceful and reflective film, right? Uh, no, it’s pretty fucking depressing.
One traumatic moment involving betrayal and death changes the complexion of everything, and soon Selma’s life is thrown into chaos. It is at this point where the film grows incredibly bleak, and it gradually becomes hard to watch. This has human emotion in its rawest form, and some of the character behaviors are downright maddening. Not an easy watch by any means.
Björk in the lead role is an interesting choice, and she does a pretty damn good job for not being a real actress. She is quirky and does well to bring compassion to her character, and her contributions to the soundtrack are wonderful. Of course, she has a very distinct style and not everyone will embrace her singing. I thought she was great, but some of her lip syncing during the musical numbers was way off the mark. I got a kick out of some of the song performances, but the lip syncing in general was just terrible and sometimes it took me out of the moment.
Catherine Deneueve and David Morse, in particular, delivered memorable performances as well, and did a great job in their supporting roles.
Dancer in the Dark, while bleak and disturbing in nature, is a well-crafted film that rather fantastically feels like a mix of musical, documentary and drama. The film’s raw emotional style isn’t for everyone, but I rather enjoyed it. Can’t wait to see more of von Trier’s work.