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Director: Lars von Trier

Producer: Vibeke Windelov

Written by: Lars von Trier

Cast: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Joel Grey, Siobhan Fallon, Udo Kier

Rating: .5 out of 5

"A provocationís purpose is to get people to think. If you subject people to a provocation, you allow them the possibility of their own interpretation." óLars von Trier

During the opening minutes of the film, patterns and colors ebb and flow against stirring music, and are as lovely as can be, as lovely as anything in FANTASIA. When the story gets going, the colors wash out like home movies from the í60s.

DANCER IN THE DARK is about Selma (Björk), an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who lives with a terrible secret. She is slowly going blind from an inherited condition that will also blind her son, Gene, unless she can save up enough money for an operation for him. Selmaís life is one of unrelenting hard work and unstinting sacrifice, and her only escape is musicals. Selma gets a lift through her wearying days from the production numbers running through her head. Sheís also rehearsing the role of Maria in the local community groupís production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

People like Selma. Jeff (Stormare) wants to be her boyfriend. Samuel (Patterson), the director of the community musical, encourages her and teases her about her love of tap-dancing. Bill (Morse), the local cop and her neighbor and landlord, and his wife Linda (Seymour) give her little gifts. Her best friend and co-worker Cathy (Deneuve) protects her as fiercely as a mother bear, and covers for her on-the-job screwups caused by daydreaming and poor vision. Only 12-year-old Gene, who resents his motherís stinginess, is immune to Selma.

Taking on a factory job plus at-home piecework, Selma tells everyone who asks that she has to make money to send home to her father in Czechoslovakia. She also claims that her fatherís name is Oldrich Novy. Novy, unbeknownst to her American neighbors, was a movie star in the 1930s and í40s, and known as the Czech Fred Astaire.

One day, Selma and Bill exchange confidences, setting in motion a train wreck of human suffering. I donít want to get into details of how it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. Suffice it to say that the story plays out like an opera by Dickens. Our heroine suffers worse and worse mistreatments and indignitiesóthe world so cruel and she so good-hearted and unequal to it all.

Too bad that opera was set to Björkís jarringly modern music. Either you get this music or you donít. I donít, and itís a large part of DANCER IN THE DARK, which isnít just about musicals, it is a musical. Björkís compositions are more recitative than aria, and the accompaniment of dance just seemed weird. Also, Selmaís a lifelong fan of an elegant dancer from the early days of movies, yet the choreography of her internal dance numbers was more Stomp-inspired. There is a factory scene that incorporates the sounds of the machinery and is reminiscent of that Astaire dance number set in a shipís engine room, but thatís the closest the numbers come to paying homage to her idol. I think DANCER IN THE DARK should have had the courage of its musical convictions and gone for it, like PENNIES FROM HEAVEN did, or should have left it alone.

On the other hand, I had no problem seeing Björk as Best Actress (she won at Cannes), not so much because I loved the film, but because she had hard, hard work to do and did it. Like a jazz piece that may not be your cup of tea but is undeniably difficult to master, you have to respect the performance. Now technical proficiency, thatís a whole ínother deal. Björkís no Meryl Streep, and her accentósometimes almost Cockney, sometimes some vaguely undefined European stylingócame and went.

Iím always glad to see Lars Von Trierís movies. I donít always like the overall product, but I always have something to think about. Here are some things I think he does well. He takes good care of the actors, so that no one is left out there, exposed and embarrassed. Thatís not to say that Selmaís internal musicals arenít ever embarrassingóthey are. But then, why shouldnít they be? Who among us has interior fancies that could really bear the light of day? Also Von Trier is good at mood, at making me feel a time and place, just as he did successfully in BREAKING THE WAVES. I do think, though that it may be time to move on from tales of sweet, kindly, addled women whose love and selflessness for another leads them to tragic, operatic ends.

Iíd have to say that, as a movie, DANCER IN THE DARK is a swing and a miss, though itís clear that Von Trier was aiming to hit it out of the park. As a provocation, itís a home run.

On a side note, the real-life Oldrich Novy, played here by Joel Grey, was indeed the Czech Astaire. He died in the 1980s, having starred in THE BLUE STAR HOTEL and other films. If anyone has a lead on where these films can be rented, WRITE ME!


ó Roxanne Bogucka — an Action Grrl!

HYBRID Ratings Guide:

- Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

- Itís worth a full-price ticket.

- Itís worth a matinee ticket.

- Wait for video rental.

- Check out the video from the library, if you must.

- While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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