Leave it to the French to stir things up. Last May, in another one of their audacious moves, the jury at Cannes embraced “Dancer in the Dark” director Lars von Trier and his volatile star Bjork by awarding them the Palme D’Or and actress prizes, respectively. “Dancer” went on to receive European Film Awards in the film and actress categories as well.
No filmmaker has so divided critics since Godard in the ’60s, and the Danish filmmaker, who’s most closely associated with the quizzical Dogma 95 collective, has given his champions and detractors
another reason to engage in fierce debate.
His revisionist musical features Bjork as an impoverished single mother stricken with encroaching blindness who’s saving her pennies and nickles to fund an operation for her son to avoid the same fate. It’s all very bleak and dark, hence the title — not the kind of story one associates with musicals. But it’s the traditional Hollywood musical that Bjork’s Selma, a Czech immigrant, fantasizes about, and which Von Trier turns on its ear with handheld camera work, digital imagery and a stark realism that’s almost documentary-like.
On top of all that, there’s singing and dancing: on railway cars, in the tool-and-die factory where Bjork and her co-star Catherine Deneuve work, in the courtroom where Selma’s fate is sealed. It’s uncharted territory, and Academy members — much like the critics — will either likely say their hosannas or turn their noses up.
Bjork, like her avant pop music, is an acquired taste, certainly the most unorthodox singer to ever carry a musical. But many fans of the film felt her performance was a revelation, and made all the more ambitious by the fact that she composed the music and wrote the songs. (As an aside, Emily Watson was Oscar nominated for her work in von Trier’s equally controversial “Breaking the Waves” (1996)).
Deneuve, too, takes chances, being cast against her usual cool, collected ice blonde roles. A best actress Oscar nominee for “Indochine” in 1992, Deneuve is given ample screen time for supporting actress consideration here.
The cinematography is by longtime Wim Wenders lenser Robby Muller, and — mixing celluloid and video — he acheives a look that’s unlike most other films released this year.