'Dancer' a welcome surprise in a lackluster film year

by Hank Leukart | 10/17/00 5:00am

In these cynical times, we think we've seen it all. We've made it through the 1990s, in which popular media massaged us into thinking we were smart, jaded and sophisticated, and in the '00s, we're even above that 20th-century sophistication. After over 100 years of movies, it can seem that there's little room for innovation remaining in the world of cinema, especially after taking in this year's crop of films.

With little but rehashed and clichd romantic comedies ("The Tao of Steve"), bad revamps of gross-out bonanzas ("Scary Movie") and typical nothing-but-special-effects thrillers ("The Perfect Storm"), one starts to wonder whether there's anything left to do but copy tired (and tiresome) movie formulas.

Thankfully, Lars von Trier (director of "Breaking the Waves") has surfaced to challenge our pessimism and bring moviegoers "Dancer in the Dark," undoubtedly the best film of the year. Like last year's "Being John Malkovich," the film rips apart old formulas to create a truly new film.

Because "Dancer" depicts a difficult-to-stomach tragedy and draws much of its power from the pain of its characters, it joins a number of films from last year like "The War Zone" and "Boys Don't Cry." But while those films approach their painful subjects through a traditional dramatic window, von Trier's work takes an unheard-of approach; "Dancer" is a musical.

In the film, Icelandic pop-star Bjrk plays Selma, a Czechoslovakian immigrant who moved to Washington State in 1964 to start a new life for herself. A hereditary disease slowly renders her blind, and she knows her son is also in danger unless she can save enough money for an expensive operation. Selma learns to escape despair both by starring in a local amateur production of "The Sound of Music" and by imagining she stars in an actual Hollywood musical.

Although the film pays homage to a number of black-and-white musicals -- and, predominantly, "The Sound of Music" -- "Dancer" is very unlike the traditional Hollywood musicals from the 1950s and 1960s.

First, director and writer von Trier shot the film in wide-screen digital video, creating a gritty look complete with washed-out color, qualities totally unlike glossy musicals like "Singing in the Rain" and "The Sound of Music."

Second, with the exception of the time during the musical sequences, all of the film is shot with handheld cameras and natural lighting, reinforcing von Trier's love for ultra-realistic storytelling.

Finally, the most important difference stems from mood; classic musicals almost always maintain an upbeat tone to keep audiences happy, while "Dancer in the Dark" manages to merge tragic storyline sequences with cheerful musical numbers. But even the choreographed dancing and singing exist with an underlying melancholic subtext that builds a complex cheerful-tragic tone that often marks the best films.

To the much-deserved credit of Bjrk, von Trier is not the only one who made this movie so successful. Bjrk pours her soul into this film, turning in a heart-wrenching performance that commands the Academy to nominate her for an Oscar. Bjrk also composed all of the distinctive, rhythmic music for the film, which fits Selma's fantasy sequences perfectly. Bjrk's music is rich and multi-layered, at times revering traditional Hollywood conventions while always maintaining a decidedly postmodern creativity through the use of sampling and Bjrk's unsettling voice.

Although some have criticized the musical sequences for their childish nature, complete with over-the-top choreography and simplistic editing, von Trier undoubtedly filmed them this way intentionally. The scenes perfectly bring to life the woman's strange fantasies while both laughing at and respecting the classic traditional.

As evidenced by the polar critical reactions to this film, many people will hate this film. For some, buying into its story and dealing with its constant melancholic mood may exist as obstacles to enjoying 'Dancer.' But as I've written many times before, the best movies generate controversy.

Even without the genre-bending musical sequences, "Dancer in the Dark" would have been a poignant film. With them, combined with the film's presentation and unapologetic script, von Trier has created an astonishing work of art, injecting a unique movie into a year of dismal copycats. Maybe there is hope for cinema.

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