Here’s a simple question for you – did anyone not cry at this film, which won the European Film Awards Best Film prize in 2000 (as well as the trifling matters of the Palme D’Or and Best Actress at Cannes)? Lars von Trier, together with a performance from Björk that simply defines pathos, takes us into the heart of emotion and reworks the concept of the musical, to boot.
The plot has the simplicity of a fable – Selma Jezkova (Björk) is a Czech immigrant who lives in rural America with her young son Samuel (Vincent Paterson), eking out a bare existence as a factory worker in the 1960s, desperately trying to save enough money to allow her son to have an operation that will save his eyesight, as he has the same genetic, degenerative condition as Selma, whose sight has all but gone.
A lover of musicals – ‘In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens’ – Selma lives largely in her own mind, finding music in the mundanity of everyday life. And it is this device that is Von Trier’s stroke of genius – the fantastical, ‘let’s do the show right here’ nature of the classic musical is thus avoided, because all the song and dance numbers are taking place only in Selma’s inner world.
Catherine Deneuve provides stellar support as Selma’s true friend Kathy, who wants only to protect her gentle, ragamuffin-like innocence from the harsh realities of life, while David Morse, too, is excellent as the caring, compassionate but desperate neighbour whose dishonesty brings tragedy.
Musicals always divide audiences – some people simply cannot stand them, while for others, they are joyous examples of cinematic creativity. There are lessons to be learned in Dancer in the Dark for both sides of the argument – this is nothing less than a towering achievement.
Even more than that, it could be said that this is the film to convince Colin that the musical can be a worthwhile art form…but let’s not get too carried away, eh?