Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wrenching tale of ailing woman coping through fantasy one of the year's best films
Contemporary filmmakers have generally considered the musical a defunct genre. Kenneth Branaugh can make his feeble attempt to revive the style with Shakespeare in "Love's Labour Lost," and Woody Allen can put his humorous spin on it with "Everybody Says I Love You," but that does not mean the genre is alive and well - that is until Lars von Trier applies his directorial genius to it.
Von Trier's new film, "Dancer in the Dark," the Palm D'Or winner at this year's Cannes film festival, takes the conventions of the 1940s musical and recontextualizes them into a heart-wrenching, gritty tale of a factory worker losing her sight and her grip on reality.
Musicals have always presented an idyllic world with few worries and fewer problems - a happy world with smiling people who cannot help but burst into song. Musicals, in other words, do not replicate reality and were so popular during war time for that very reason.
Von Trier uses this notion to structure his film. The film's main character Selma (played by Icelandic goddess Bjšrk, who after her best actress win at Cannes for this film has vowed never to act again) has moved to America from the Czechoslovakia in hopes of paying for a sight-saving eye surgery for her son. He is suffering from the family disease that is causing her to lose her own sight. Selma loves musicals, and expects America to be just like them. She finds the reality to be quite different though, and as she progressively loses her sight, she imagines herself in a musical to escape her problems.
Von Trier brilliantly utilizes a shaky, hand-held camera shooting style to capture the reality of Selma's life, keeping all the images grainy. Then when Selma imagines her life as a musical, and Bjšrk actually does start singing and dancing to music she composed for the film, the images become crisper, the editing more conventional and the film looks more like a film.
Von Trier plays with the idea of what happens when a person mistakes the constructed reality of film for the reality of life, as well as questions the ideal of the American dream.
Apart from all of this intellectual - and brilliant - stuff, the film is simply a moving and engaging movie-going experience.
Bjšrk, at every moment, elicits the audience's sympathies for kind-hearted Selma; she plays her without condescension, as a simple-minded woman. Selma is a woman who needs to be cared for, as she often is by the other characters in the film, and she puts her trust whole-heatedly into them. This makes the shift all the more remarkable when the musical numbers occur - where Selma displays a remarkable amount of independence and bravado.
The film seems to suggest that this inner confidence is lying just beneath the surface of Selma - and all people in general - which is what makes her character the most represented and complex one in film this year.
"Dancer in the Dark" is the best film released so far this year - a stunning narrative with a compelling visual style and the most nuanced acting in a while.