by Jason Pyles
“I used to dream I was in a musical, ‘cause nothing dreadful ever happens … ”
This ironic line of dialogue from “Dancer in the Dark” should be enough reason for none of our Considering the Cinema members to pass on watching this film. Our weekly films aren’t mandatory, but this one should be.
Here Eleanor has selected what could be a poster child for unusual, discussion-worthy films. Bravo, El.
Filmed much like a documentary, “Dancer in the Dark” has a convincing appearance of verisimilitude; in other words, as we watch, it is easy to believe that we are watching real people behave, not just actors acting (which is also a credit to the cast).
And yet, the first musical number (of the seven total, full-blown musical productions) doesn’t begin until 40 minutes into the film. Neat.
But what is remarkable about this musical is its seeming realism. Most chirpy musicals have an unashamed artificiality to them. In this way, when the characters in these typical productions burst forth into song, we can kind of just go with it.
When “Dancer in the Dark” (an atypical musical, to say the least) derails for its musical numbers, it’s a little startling. But what keeps the contrast from becoming a train wreck each time is the fact that the song-and-dance performances aren’t actually happening in the film, they are only a part of Selma Jezkova’s (Bjork) coping-mechanism, escapist’s dream world.
And as a musician, I offer my useless opinion that the best song of the film is the second one, “I’ve Seen It All.” I particularly love the line, “You haven’t seen elephants, kings or Peru,” which was supposedly performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, not Peter Stormare (“Fargo.”)
Speaking of cast members, I also enjoyed seeing the great French actress, Catherine Deneuve, of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and “Belle de Jour” (1967) fame. This may be reaching, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the name of her character, “Kathy,” and the name of the son, “Gene,” had anything to do with “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)? … Kathy Selden … Gene Kelly … another nod to musicals, perhaps?
Along with little tidbits like this, at times I couldn’t help but think I was seeing an homage to “Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory” (1895), as well as the brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896). I wouldn’t put it past Lars von Trier. (That last sentence could be preceded by almost anything.)
“Dancer in the Dark” had me thinking on loftier matters, too. It is sweetly sad how the selfless mother in this film (Selma) sets aside her dreams, her safety and ultimately her own life for her son’s well-being and happiness. I don’t claim to have gained any special wisdom from my son’s birth, but as a new father of six months, this character’s sacrifice struck a chord with me.
And, as a new father, I also noted and felt somewhat comforted that this selfless mother also allowed herself brief episodes of escape into her dreams — outside her noble, parental duties. Ah, justification.
There is also a lot to be said (perhaps not by me) about the correlations and symbolism between vision and blindness. This film reminded me of the scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) And I suppose one could insert “Justice is blind” in this movie somewhere, too.
Indeed, this film seems to be a blatant critique on the justice system — and the death penalty. Isn’t it fascinating (and frustrating) that everything said during Selma’s trial is the exact opposite of the truth? I am presently covering a murder trial for my newspaper, and I couldn’t help but think of this film today during the testimonials.
But what are we to make of that horrific, shocking murder scene? Somehow one of cinema’s gentlest caricatures of humanity is compelled to administer a grisly murder. I have to contest this and assert that Selma’s deed really pushed the credibility envelope. Despite her desperate mission to provide for her son’s surgery, I just can’t see this character doing such a thing. Can you?
On the other hand, I guess it’s neat that this blind character had such a clear, precise tunnel vision when it came to her primary objective. Here’s another believability question: Do we all believe that the son really did receive the surgery? Or were they lying to appease Selma? Tell me if I’ve missed something.
“Dancer in the Dark” is unsettling, to say the least, particularly the ending. But what else did we expect from a Bjork musical? Finally, she has images to match the brooding mood of her music.
“Dancer in the Dark” is somewhat of a paradoxical thing: a downbeat musical. Most musicals are syncopated, or upbeat … That was a little musician’s humor there. Very little.