Dancer in the Dark

"We all feel better in the dark." --Pet Shop Boys

Dancer in the Dark is a vehicle for Bjork to showcase both her musical and acting talents. As such, it works really well for her. The movie itself however is a bit tiresome and though there are some great moments, it's dragged down by its slow pacing.

In the film, Selma (Bjork) is a struggling immigrant mother afflicted with an inherited disease that's causing her to become blind. She knows her twelve-year old son Gene (Vladica Kostic) will also go face the same suffering and therefore saves every bit she makes to enable him to have an operation that will fix his vision. Things go awry however when Bill (David Morse), her friend and landlord, steals the money she has saved. Selma kills him when trying to retrieve the money, stands trial for his murder, and is sentenced to death.

As Selma's predicament worsens, so does her blindness. But she remains strong by clinging to her love for musicals, imagining a musical scene in every setting she is in based on the ambient noises she hears. This leads to some cool compositions involving the sound of metal clanging in a machine shop, a moving train, and (even) walking down the cell block during an execution. Of course, it is Bjork the musician who is orchestrating this, while Bjork the actress plays the role of Selma in an extremely poignant manner.

Dancer in the Dark didn't entirely satisfy me because it is based on a relatively simple plot that is dragged on for too long. Even up to the trial, parts of the film are completely unnecessary; but after then, until her execution, nothing new is presented, either emotionally or intellectually. If this slow pacing is meant to illustrate the eternity a person feels when waiting for their execution, it just doesn't work and only serves to antagonise the audience who has established an emotional connection with the protagonist. Movies which focus on the death-row wait, like The Green Mile, make it much more interesting.

The movie could be seen as commentary on the American justice system, and perhaps even capitalism (since all the troubles in this film occur as a desire for money). But unlike in films like In the Name of the Father, the whole situation here is completely contrived. There is no reason for Selma to have killed Bill, and further, there's plenty of evidence that would've shown Bill's own culpability in this event.

What is most amazing about Dancer in the Dark is its surrealism. Selma has Jeff (Peter Stormare) follow her around all the time wanting to be her boyfriend. Her relationship with Bill is fascinating and the situation leading to his death is trippy. In addition, people break out in song at the most incongruous moments (and while the rest of the film is set in dull colours, perhaps to illustrate Selma's lack of clarity of vision, the song sequences she dreams are in bright colours).

I'm a big fan of Bjork's music and one reason for this is because she uses incongruous musical sounds together effectively (say, violins with synthesisers to give a simple example). Her unique renditions of parts from The Sound of Music are a delight to listen to. The movie is similar, in that director Lars von Trier blends incongruous sequences to make a cohesive whole. Given the relatively purist approach adopted here in its making, I feel some judicious editing would've definitely made this a much better film. Still, I recommend checking it out on the big screen.

Movie ram-blings || Ram Samudrala ||