December 7, 2000 -- "Dancer in the Dark" is both a whimsical musical and a tragedy of the blackest proportions. One reviewer wrote it is a film "so perfect, it hurts to watch." It is painful to watch, but not because it is perfect. The film certainly has its admirers though, it was awarded the Palme d'Or at the latest Cannes Film Festival.
Singer-actress Björk stars as Selma, a Czechoslovakian who moves to the U.S. with her young son Gene looking for a better life. She suffers from a degenerative eye condition which will cause her to go blind. She knows her son will suffer the same fate without an operation. Her neighbor and landlord Bill (played by David Morse "The Green Mile") confides in her that he is near bankruptcy because he and his wife are living beyond their means. Selma, however, is saving every penny for her son's operation.
Selma works long and hard to make money, sometimes pulling double shifts in a metal product factory which seems more like an Eastern European factory than an American workplace. While she works, songs dance through her head. After work, she practices to be in a small town production of "Sound of Music." Music enables Selma to deal with any problem that comes her way with courage and patience. Some of the musical numbers in the film are magical, filled with a heartbreaking lyrical, soaring beauty. Other numbers, however, seem dully repetitive, with little to distinguish one from another.
Then there's the relentlessly depressing series of wildly unlikely and inconsistent events which conspire against Selma, beating her down mercilessly. A little of that stuff goes a long way, but the story just keeps slogging along, like the song of the Volga Boatmen. If you see this, you'll find out why it is painful to watch. I wouldn't have minded so much, but it is so relentless, yet unconvincing dragging us through a dreary, pointless courtroom sequence, followed by yet another dreary segment, heaping injustice on top of injustice and sorrow upon sorrow. The musical numbers help, but they don't really balance things out enough. At two hours and 40 minutes long, this movie is just bloated. It needs a healthy dose of editing.
Despite all that, some of the musical numbers are wonderful. Björk is magic in the lead role. It is no wonder she won the best actress award at Cannes because of power and subtlety of her performance. Poor David Morse is saddled with a role of a character with huge inconsistencies. It is a pivotal role in the film, but he must have been wondering "what's my motivation?" Even Björk has a hard time getting through the scene as her carefully constructed character comes apart at the seams. The pivotal scene, carried out by a mournful Morse and a determined Björk is all but a deus ex machina as the story line comes to a screeching halt and is forced off the road. Maybe this is endemic to the work of director Lars von Trier, whose previous film, "Breaking the Waves," also relies on God taking a hand in things.
Up until that point, I could buy the story, fantasies, lack of health insurance and all. Peter Storemare ("Armageddon") is good in the role of Jeff, a seemingly slow-witted admirer of Selma who nevertheless turns out to be a whole lot smarter than Selma's lawyer. It is good to see Catherine Deneuve, who plays Selma's friend, Kathy. Deneuve does a fine job in the role, and she has a beauty that defies age. The seldom-seen entertainer extraordinaire, Joel Grey ("Cabaret") turns up with a dazzling dance number playing Oldrich Novy. This film rates a B, since its good points outweigh its overindulgences.
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