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Dancer in The Dark

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Review by Aaron Beierle | posted March 24, 2001 | E-mail the Author

The Movie:

The musical is not exactly a popular genre anymore, as apparent in the five years it took the recent "The Fantasticks" to get from a finished film to the big screen - and then very quickly to video. And yet, the creativity and visual style of director Lars Von Trier("Breaking The Waves") made for a remarkable attempt last year with "Dancer In The Dark", a film that audiences seemed to be heavily to one side or the other in terms of their opinion.

The film takes place in Washington state in the 1964 and involves the residents of a small town, most notably Selma(Icelandic pop star Bjork, in a fine performance), an industrial plant worker who is slowly going blind due to an apparently hereditary disease. She finds out that her son is suffering from the same disease, as well, and sets out to save enough money for an operation to cure him.

The only thing that keeps Selma going is musicals and music - listening even to the beats of the factory machines brings her joy. These scenes turn into a sort of oddly rhythmic funk - sort of a "Blue Man Group"-ish sound as the machines bump and thump (Vincent Patterson's commentary track on this disc also reveals that some of the music in the segments was inspired by the "Blue Man"-ish group Stomp). Yet, for all the joy that music and musicals brings her, things get worse for Selma. Her blindness continues to get worse, and it keeps her away from the play that she's been rehearsing for. With a job like hers in the plant, it also effects safety - which remains a bit lacking as Selma's musical daydreams keep returning to take her away from her rough situation.

Before I give away too much about the film, let me discuss what I liked about the picture. Easily the first element that I must focus on is both a positive and negative one. Pop singer Bjork's performance is nothing short of outstanding - she makes Selma an incredibly engaging character that we care deeply about and want to follow even through the occasional parts of "Dancer" that drag on. The negative aspect is that Bjork reportedly has said that this is her first and last screen performance, as her reported fights with director Von Trier were apparently pretty intense. Supporting performances by Catherine Deneuve and the always excellent David Morse are fine, as well. I even liked many of the film's musical numbers - although the choreography wasn't anything too stunning, the sound is sort of like a neat mix of old-fashioned musical sound and current pop - combined with Bjork's stunning voice, these songs are very enjoyable.

The only thing that got to me a bit was the film's pacing. The movie runs a little bit under 2 1/2 hours and editing could have made the pacing crisper and quicker. With Bjork's excellent performance though, this usually remained a pretty minor complaint. Watching Selma's life spiral further and further downhill is often a heartbreaking experience, and Von Trier's handheld camera brings us directly into the emotions of each and every sequence. And a lot of cameras there were - Von Trier reportedly used 100 (and as many as 150, reportedly) small digital cameras for some of the sequences.

"Dancer In The Dark" is simply unlike anything I've seen in recent years, and as such, I can appreciate it for that. There's more to it, though - Bjork's performance holds the attention like few performances have that I've seen recently, and Von Trier is working with a talented supporting cast. Not without a few very minor complaints, but I was amazed and entertained by a great deal of it. Any way I can discuss the film though, it'll be a real tragedy if Bjork doesn't ever act again - her performance here, for a first-time actor, is nothing short of amazing and really should have gained more awards notice.


VIDEO: "Dancer In The Dark" was filmed on digital video - as such, it lacks the smoothness and polished nature of films, as we're used to, but it works for the feel of this particular film. The movie is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and although it usually remains respectably sharp, there are some scenes that are rather soft and lacking fine detail.

Colors differ depending on the situation in the film. With the digital camera footage, most of the movie is intentionally drab looking, with dark and murky colors putting us into Selma's life. During the song-and-dance numbers though, colors brighten and look richer and more vibrant.

Although again, the digital video film won't present a "film-like" picture, New Line still does the best that they can with the film's anamorphic transfer on this DVD, with no pixelation or other such flaws. The layer change is at 1:29:38.

SOUND: New Line presents "Dancer In The Dark" in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio versions. Although I appreciate the choice, "Dancer in the Dark" remains a rather odd choice to offer them both. The film is essentially mono for the great majority of the film - focusing on the dialogue, and nothing but the dialogue. Not that that's a bad thing, as here it helps to make the scenes to feel more real and the conversations more isolated - the characters recieve our focus.

It's only when the musical numbers kick in that the audio presentation opens up more to involve the surrounds for some of the music. Afterwards, it calms down and again, returns to focus on the dialogue. As with a fairly low-budget production, dialogue sounds a bit thin at times, but generally remains natural and easily understood.

MENUS: Unlike most of New Line's menus, "Dancer" offers non-animated menus, but still use film-themed images very well and overall, the menus look very pleasing.


Commentary: This is a commentary from writer/director Lars Von Trier, producer Vibeke Windelov, technical supervisor Peter Hjorth and artist Per Kirkeby. Much of the commentary has Von Trier discussing his feelings about the production of the film, from the technical issues to the musical aspects of the picture to working with star Bjork. I particularly enjoyed listening to Von Trier analyzing his own work and discussing the elements of filmmaking. Producer Vibeke Windelov discusses some of the challenges of working on the film and some of the previous works on Von Trier as well as what the director's style of working is like. These two do the majority of the talking and their comments are often open, honest and occasionally funny as they offer stories about the making of the film. There are some very minor pauses of silence before the next participant offers their information, but these are minor at most and not distracting. Von Trier's comments are particularly interesting and the commentary as a whole is definitely worth listening to.

Commentary: This is a commentary by choreographer Vincent Patterson. Although Patterson is the only one participating on this track, he successfully attempts to fill the time with a good deal of interesting production information. Not only does he discuss his role as the choreographer, but he also has a strong amount of information about the history of the film and his opinions about working with both director Lars Von Trier and actress Bjork. There's also a good amount of information about how the film was changed along the way as well as some great stories about the difficulties that Patterson encountered on the set - much of the production seems as if it was chaotic and changing on a daily basis, and Patterson takes us through a great deal of the day-to-day moments. Although I found a great deal of the first commentary very interesting, I found this track often even more engaging and informative. There are some pauses throughout the track, but I was impressed by how well Patterson filled the track without resorting to filler comments. The comments are not always screen-specific, but still nonetheless fascinating - and actually, it stands out as one of the best tracks I've listened to this year.

100 Cameras: Capturing Lars Von Trier's Vision: This documentary focuses on the reasons and challenges behind how Lars Von Trier used 100 (or sometimes more) cameras to capture every last detail of some of the film's more elaborate scenes. The documentary takes us through each step of the process, even the amazing work that has to be done during post-production, such as taking the massive amounts of footage and spending months to load it all into the editing computers.

Choreography: Creating Vincent Patterson's Dance Sequences:Vincent Patterson (who also contibuted an excellent commentary to this disc - definitely listen to that!) captured many of the rehearsals for the movie on his own digital video camera for this documentary and narrates the footage as the moves for the dance sequences come together in the dance studio.

Alternate Scenes: "Version 2" of "Cvalda" and "Versions 2 & 3" of "I've Seen It All".

Also: Theatrical Trailer, Cast and Crew Bios, Selma's Music (jump to a song in the film) and DVD-ROM (original theatrical website)

Final Thoughts: "Dancer In The Dark" is not an experience that may be for everyone (apparent in some reviews that seemed to hate the film), but I found it to be an often fascinating and powerful film with a wonderful lead performance from Bjork. New Line's DVD offers fine audio quality and good video quality, considering that this was filmed on digital video. The extras really round out the package nicely, as well. "Dancer In The Dark" is very highly recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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