Dancer in the Dark Review
Unlike most films which hit the multiplex to either good or bad reviews, Dancer in the Dark had the rare experience of having a vast number of both, effectively destroying its chances of being a major arthouse success, let alone a mainstream one (which probably would never have been Von Trier's intention!). The film was rapturously received at Cannes last year, winning award after award, but met a far less generous reception when it was released in British and American cinemas, with some major critics attacking it with the sort of vitriol that you'd have expected the new Michael Bay film to receive. Unfortunately, it deserved much of the scorn levelled at it, but not quite all.
The plot is typical 50s tearjerker stuff. Selma, a factory worker in a presumably American town (actually Sweden), is going blind, and attempting to save up enough money for her son to have an operation that will ensure that he does not suffer from the hereditary disease. Unfortunately, her self-loathing landlord Bill (Morse) is short of money, and a tragic spiral of events is set into existence. Meanwhile, there are musical numbers of a kind not seen since Busby Berkeley hung up his dancing shoes.
It's actually extremely hard to review this film; it really is a 'love it or hate it' experience, but there are a few things that even its detractors will grudgingly admit are good. Whether you care for Bjork as an actress and singer or not, it's hard to deny that she brings a truly visceral quality to her performance as Selma, which makes it an impressive experience to watch at least once. In fact all the performances are good, from a bizarrely cast Catherine Deneuve as Selma's confidant and friend to Morse in possibly the film's most interesting supporting role, as the decent man who is compelled to acts of great wickedness through circumstance. There are also a few nice moments of humour early in the film; as in his (far superior) Breaking the Waves, Von Trier appears to have become very slightly more accessible in his recent English language work.
However, there's a definite polarising element with the film, which can either be seen as genius or folly, and that is the decision to film entirely with digital cameras, even for the musical numbers, thus moving away completely from the lush hyper-stylisation of the great Hollywood musicals that the film references constantly. The DVD transfer, as will be noted later, is fine as far as it goes, but there is no denying that this is an extraordinarily ugly film to look at for vast parts, although the musical numbers bring a sense of colour to their scenes, as well as a feeling of movement.
Unfortunately, that's all that they do. Once again, it's necessary to add the injunction that if you like Bjork's music, you'll be impressed by the musical numbers. Unfortunately, if you regard them as tuneless nonsense, they will act less as a quasi-choric means of commenting on the action, and more as an irritation. The first musical scene is guaranteed to draw some sort of response, but the subsequent ones might well leave a viewer completely cold. It's almost redundant to point out that the film is in its own way as manipulative as any Hollywood tearjerker, but the almost sadistic relish with which the ending is drawn out lends credibility to this supposition.
This is a love it or hate it film; the people who I saw it with at the cinema were either deeply, deeply moved or left completely cold and bored. Personally, I didn't find it affecting or especially profound, but there is no denying Von Trier's daring, in making such a deliberately offputting film. A recommended watch in order to have an opinion on it.
It's rather difficult to describe the picture, as the quality of the original film stock and the quality of the transfer itself are not necessarily synonymous. In the 'normal' scenes of the film, Von Trier's colour scheme is drab, dull and sepia-tinged; the transfer presents this exceptionally well, although there is some blurring in the faster camera movements, and it certainly looks better than it did in the cinema. In the musical scenes, the transfer is absolutely glorious; colours are rich and vivid, detail is incredibly sharp, and it's the only example of a DVD I can think of where the quality of the transfer manages to convey a director's stylistic intentions far better than anything else in the film. While I have massive and substantial reservations about the wisdom of filming with digital cameras, this is a 10/10 transfer of difficult material.
As you'd expect in a musical film, the musical numbers are where the soundtrack gets the biggest workout, and so it proves here. Surrounds are used intelligently and often quite surprisingly, and the music is vastly enhanced. The downside is, of course, that Bjork's singing is also far more prominent, which will be a painful auditory experience for all but her fans. The DTS soundtrack is slightly richer and clearer than the Dolby, but the difference isn't really all that noticeable unless the DVD is played at top volume. In the non-musical scenes, the mix is far more subdued, which again manages to heighten the contrast between Selma's fantasy world and the real world.
A very film-specific set of extras from New Line start with 2 commentaries, one by Von Trier and cohorts, the other by the film's choreographer. Von Trier dominates his track, as you'd expect, but there are a surprisingly high number of patches of silence, as well as a general refusal to be really candid about the infamous problems with Bjork that reputedly led to her eating her costume at one point. The choreographer's commentary is highly technical in nature, and only recommended for true dance fanatics.
The 2 documentaries are both highly specialised stuff. The '100 Cameras' piece is a short 20-minute film about Von Trier's use of digital camera, both in the fantasy and reality scenes, and is quite interesting even though it doesn't quite answer the question of why normal cameras were unacceptable. The other documentary is a short piece on the choreographer; again, only of real interest to dance fanatics. The extras are rounded out by a couple of vaguely interesting alternate dance scenes, and the usual trailer and filmographies.
The major omission here is a documentary that is known to exist of the film's production, but was withheld by Bjork, as it explicitly shows her behaving in an 'eccentric' fashion, including the aforementioned costume eating, while Von Trier reputedly behaved in an equally neurotic manner. If the disc had had this documentary on, I would be giving it an unqualified recommendation, regardless of my reservations about the film.
The film is a very difficult one to review; I was personally left mostly cold by it, but it's still good to see a film that takes risks and offers an entirely different experience to the normal round of sanitised Hollywood product, even as it falls into the trap of becoming little more than an arthouse example of that. My own rating is 5/10, but in fact I'd say this is closer to a 7/10 or even 8/10 film for many. The picture and sound quality are up to New Line's usual very high standards, and the extras are interesting, if with a disappointing omission. As mentioned before, this is a recommended film to watch at least once, if only to have some sort of opinion on it.