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“What is there to see?”

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, known for his realistic controversial films and association with the Dogme 95 movement collaborates with Icelandic electronica singer-songwriter Björk to present something I’ve been incredibly moved by. I can’t get over how Trier as the director and screenwriter takes the musical genre and removes a lot of what you’d typically expect. For me, it was beyond beautiful and beyond brilliant. It’s real art in the deepest of forms.

Trier as an auteur is known for his different trilogies of films and Dancer in the Dark is no exception. As the final film of the “Golden Heart trilogy”, it’s set in rural America in the early sixties and focuses on Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant in poverty who works in a blue collar factory with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). To escape her struggles, Selma imagines her life as an all singing all dancing Hollywood musical. However, Selma is going blind and becomes desperate in saving money for an operation for her son in suffering the same fate, all whilst tragedy insures and Selma’s life begins to slip more and more out of control.

Dancer in the Dark from the beginning offers so much, it appears to be very optimistic and pretty. The overture introduces various colourful images flowing against each other. I may be ghastly wrong, but personally, I felt the images were very dream like and reflected the dreams of Selma as an isolated person desperate for escape. The cinematography, lighting and sound like a lot of films from the Dogme 95 era is very natural. It’s shot in a similar way to documentary and made me feel like a contributor rather than a viewer. Robby Müller as cinematographer and Trier frequently use hand held cameras which constantly zoom and pan into the drama that Selma and the community face in their everyday lives. The natural appearance along with the use of only diegetic music through Selma watching musicals at the cinema (or more touchingly, Kathy dancing her two fingers along Selma’s palm to convey the beauty shown on the big screen) is heavily contrasted to when Selma begins to dream. These dreams are so different both visually and musical and is first introduced in the factory which conflicts its gritty and realistic atmosphere as the workers suddenly move to the beats.

As a fan of Björk’s music, the fantasies clearly sounded like what I’d expected, all the songs begin with loops from reality such as factory machines, trains and steps. Visually the dreams are very beautiful because of their unrealistic nature, the cinematography features multiple cameras which employ no motion whatsoever and the movement of the music and narrative is now provided by the editing. Although the music is very strange, I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by it. The soundtrack feels misplacing in a way to what you see visually due to the setting but it works so well in terms of lyricism and tone. Timbre wise, besides sampling and other electronic sounds, it features the classic sounds of orchestra but rejects traditional structure of musical numbers and instead Björk asks the audience to really listen to the sonic experimentation and arranging. The colour is also astonishing, instead of looking bleak and grey; the colour in Selma’s dreams is so much more fuller and vibrant that it made me feel like being there like witnessing a beautiful and peaceful world.

Björk offers a marvellous and extremely strong performance. She conveys a powerful sense of emotion despite not being a trained actress, her portrayal clearly presents someone whose only joy in life besides her son is American musicals. However, although American musicals have provided with a sense of optimism; America in reality has offered her nothing in return, instead she lives a life of poverty and despair further emphasising her struggle as a strong willed single mother. Many of the songs offer so much beauty and meaning to Selma’s character such as “I’ve Seen It All”, in which Selma persuades her would-be admirer Jeff (Peter Stormare) that she really doesn’t care about going blind and there’s much more to life than seeing great wonders. The supporting cast in turn offer fantastic performances. Veteran French actress Catherine Deneuve delivers a solid supporting role whilst David Morse and Cara Seymour portraying Selma’s neighbours provide another sense of desperation as Bill (Morse) is angered at his wife’s (Seymour) materialism and constant spending.

All and all, Lars Von Trier offers a stunning film which is so different from most musicals I’ve seen. I will warn it is of course very unusual take of the musical but I highly recommend it. Deserved winner of the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at Cannes (despite receiving a lot of criticism), Dancer in the Dark is a challenging, touching and innovative film which is unlike any other film you will see. Highly recommended!

5/5

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