Blind faith

Dancer in the Dark transforms suffering into song

A breathtakingly inventive, heartbreaking film that treats music as the ultimate catharsis, Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark concerns fragile, 1960s factory worker Selma Jezkova (Bjork), who is slowly going blind. As her eyesight diminishes, Selma's sense of hearing becomes more and more acute, and the ordinary sounds of the world around her become a distracting symphony. The overlooked cadence of metal impacting metal at her factory job and needles caught in record grooves drive Selma to daydreamy distractions — she arranges these random "notes" into songs in her head and von Trier's film suddenly, exuberantly erupts into song and dance musical numbers whose anti-fantasy backgrounds are the humble, working-class digs of factories, train yards and farmhouses. The measure of Selma's unique take on the world is a sheepish grin that lets every worldly hardship and trauma wash over her as she is sustained by the otherworldly black-and-white musicals playing at the local theater and her performance as Maria in a local production of The Sound of Music. Like her friend at the tool and die factory, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), Selma is a Czechoslovakian immigrant living in a characterless Pacific Northwest town. And Kathy and Selma's fierce solidarity and loyalty seems backstoried by what may have been even graver hardships back home. Von Trier's gift in Dancer is creating situations and characters so rich and complicated it's hard not to find oneself lost in reveries of imagination that extend beyond the parameters of the film.
When the dogged, lumpen Jeff (Peter Stormare), who's been unsuccessfully courting single mother Selma, asks her if (as people have begun to suspect) she's going blind, Selma launches into a musical number of chin-up bravado that echoes all of the transparently perky Hollywood musicals of the Depression era, even down to the working men hitching a ride on a passing train who become her back-up dancers. The "I've Seen It All" musical number in which Selma accepts her blindness, claiming to have had her fill of the world's beauty, is the spiritual heart and soul of the film, a sad ode to Selma's dreaminess in the face of despair. But never have musical sequences of such ebullience and apparent good cheer been loaded with such a subtext of heartache — like the chipper musical heroine Maria of her beloved Sound of Music, Selma transforms all suffering into song.
Von Trier replaces the splendor of Busby Berkeley and Astaire and Rogers with Dancer's blue-collar Americana devoid of the prosperity and surface happiness we associate with the time, complemented by his use of unsaturated colors reminiscent of faded prints of vintage movies. There is a winsome simplicity to the musical numbers and Selma's girlish, sloppy gestures that lends an innocence to her imagination played out in these musical interludes. She never fantasizes in the overblown, "giant wedding cake" numbers of the musicals she loves, but in the austere, blue-collar terms of her own life — even in the midst of fantasy, Selma's imagination is hemmed in by reality.
Dancer is as much von Trier's portrait of the sad undoing of his working woman heroine as a commentary on the Hollywood musical's tradition of showing similarly common characters triumphing over adversity with the sweet succor of song. Numbers like "I've Seen It All" recall the similarly melancholy "My Forgotten Man" number from Gold Diggers of 1933, which suddenly injects a potent social message — about soldiers transformed from war heroes into forgotten victims of the Depression — into an otherwise frivolous musical.
A Danish production set in rural America, Dancer is a melodrama about how American cinema itself has often transformed its hard-scramble troubles into escapist entertainment at the Bijou. Set on a railroad bridge, "I've Seen It All's" dancing workmen and a farmer twirling his wife on a green lawn transforms from a song of hopeful retreat from the agonies of her encroaching blindness to a larger implied "number" about America's own troubles. The song addresses Selma's plight, but also the implied hardships of these faceless men and women whose difficult lives are often the unspoken subtext of America's escapist musicals.
Selma's blindness and her efforts to save enough money to pay for a surgery that will keep the same handicap from befalling her young son give Dancer the flushed, feverish tone of old-fashioned Douglas Sirk melodrama, whose emotional guts are splayed out for all the world to see. The crippled mom and crippled child might, in another film, seem manipulative and calculated, but von Trier's unabashed sentimentality and sincerity and his effort to locate that same melancholy in the American musical itself makes the film feel like a thrilling antidote to ironic, jaded emotional distance, much in the manner of last year's The Straight Story.
Von Trier has found a brilliant vehicle for his emotionally wrenching message in Bjork, a guileless waif in frumpy cardigan and a tangle of hair pinned back with bobby pins, whose little girl pipsqueak voice and pixie face underscore the desperation of her situation. She is as trusting and open as a child, and that optimism gets her into the trouble that finally proves her downfall in the concluding half of Dancer, whose denouement echoes the misery-heaped-upon-misery of von Trier's Breaking the Waves. The most distinctive feature of Bjork's voice, next to its girlish wistfulness, is its unusually urgent, soaring quality and the slight catch in it, like the sound made before a rush of tears or a peal of laughter. You can hear the emotional struggle of melancholy and sadness overcome as her voice breaks free into pure, sublime expression.
While some tragedies might register more obviously when the heroine negotiates a world defined by cruelty and selfishness, a great deal of Dancer's effect lies in the gentleness of Selma's universe: her sweet, dim suitor Jeff, her protective friend Kathy who works the nightshift by her side to save her from injury and the supervisor and company doctor who do everything they can to cover her mistakes on the job. There is a hard-scrabble decency to the people in Dancer that crops up in unexpected ways. And yet, when a freakish tragedy occurs, none of these kindnesses or friends seem to matter. Suddenly, we see all too clearly, the world is stacked against Selma, a single mother immigrant from a Communist country with a small child to take care of and no money. As the cards stack against Selma, she keeps retreating from the world around her into escapist musical numbers, willing the world to turn out her way. But in this postmodern musical, all the song and dance numbers, with their implicit hope and longing, won't free her. Reality keeps pulling Selma back down.
Like the hopeless dreamers of Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven, Selma keeps struggling to rise above the world's pain. And when she snaps out of her fantasies, she wears the foggy, discombobulated look of any of us leaving the movie theater to find the world much the same as when we left it.