Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: Dancer in the Dark

Version I Watched: Region 2 DVD from Denmark.

Starring: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, and David Morse

History: Conceived as the third is Lars von Trier's "Golden Heart Trilogy," the other two films being Breaking the Waves and The Idiots. An early concept for the film titled, "Taps" would feature tap dancing in every single scene. This idea was scrapped because it wasn't conceivable to teach untrained performers such as Bjork the complexity of tap dancing and have it performed well in an efficient amount of time. When the film was made it was made with a budget of 120 Million Swedish kroner (or 12.5 Million USD). It was a huge hit at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and received with standing ovations. The film was a box office success earning approx. $45 Million worldwide. The song, "I've Seen It All" featured in the film was nominated for the Academy Award for best song.

My Personal History: This is my first viewing. All I knew about it was what I read briefly and from screenshots. I hadn't even watched a trailer before watching it.

Review: My history with Lars Von Trier films is not the most extent. It is also based mostly on his more recent work. Before this film I had seen Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia. Having a general idea of his work I somewhat knew what I was getting into for this film. I especially knew I wasn't going into it for the laughs. LVT is easily one of the hardest emotional hitters in modern cinema. Although he did direct a comedy once back in 2006 but I don't know how that turned out. I also have even less experience with the work of Bjork, which is relevant because she doesn't just act in this film. She also sings. And not only did she sing the songs she composed them as well. Having both of these limited experiences with the two main individuals involved in this project gave me a fresh perspective on the film without any sort of bias. I can't even really compare this or make expectations in stylistic choices based on the LVT films I had seen before. Antichrist and Melancholia were much more modern in style and execution, not to mention a bit more explicit (Especially Antichrist) while Dogville was so crazy unique in it's visual and set style alone anything shot not on a sound stage where all the buildings are freaking mimed isn't comparable to that (AMAZING!) film. Then the only thing I knew about Bjork was her music is considered by many to either be considered amazing or weird depending who you're talking to. Regardless of these factors it's always best to be hesitant when a musician crosses over to acting, or when anyone who has a specialty in a particular art goes over to another art. They've made an establishment in one area so it seems strange to jump to a different one. Some succeed... most fail miserably or have to take a few hits before they're good at it (See Mark Wahlberg for example).

The very first thing seen in this film is of all things, an overture. I should have come to expect something like this from LVT. This is the first sample of the work Bjork composed for the film. It's short but sweet. The overture is accompanied with a blend of artistic visuals that splash in color. The reason for this visual has to do with how LVT wanted the film to be presented theatrically. In the European versions of the film the overture would play in a dimmed room just before the curtain opened. However since many American theatres do not have curtains anymore he chose to go with the visual companion to keep somewhat of the original vision he had for the overture. I like it when films have an overture. If for anything it is for the aesthetic value of it. What I didn't realize going into it was how well it fit with the musical aspect of the film. That's right, before going into this film I had no idea there would be song and dance numbers. So after the viewing I felt it was even more appropriate to have that overture in there just as LVT based a lot of his artistic choices on the classic American musical. That's not to say he didn't bring his own ideas into this, I mean, this is LVT we've got here. When he makes a movie he's the one in charge. And in charge he is! Right after the overture it jumps right into things...
Which I would like to make a quick aside to. I'm not a very big fan of opening credits period. I can't stand when movies take an eternity to get going because it feels the need to have a musical montage listing everyone who stars in the movie no matter how short they may be in it. A title is enough to get things going. I like it even more when there is no title, too. It just gives a better sense of immersion. I am hesitant to say I have a few exceptions to this complaint in general, such as Watchmen. The opening credits overlay the montage that gives history to the film's story in order to set things up. But that could have been done the exact same way without the credits covering everything up. Aside from that the only other exception would have to be the classic films when the credits were at the beginning period and then when the end rolled around, it was the end, without any after film credits. Okay... back on track.
The title is presented and we're off. It opens to a play rehearsal for a small production of The Sound of Music. I hate to say it but I have a complaint right off the bat with this film. It's the visual style chosen. It was shot digitally with handheld cameras. Now I do not have any issue with films being shot digitally. I kinda like it because it gives more of a realistic feel to the film instead of the other world HD cameras that shoot most films these days. What I don't like is how they tend to be put together. Usually when they're shot it's shot handheld. This means a lot of the time the camera is moving even when it's technically a "still" shot. It's dizzying and feels sloppy. Rachel Getting Married would pull a similar trick less than a decade later and it doesn't look any better. The only time I ever feel this style works is when it's a found footage style film because it makes sense for the camera to be jumping around all the time. Luckily later in the film it was decided to use a tripod for at least a few moments.

It's best to get used to seeing Bjork because she is in pretty much every single scene in this film. She plays Selma, an Eastern European woman who travels to America with her young son having hopes and expectations it would be similar to a Hollywood musical. She works at a factory making not a whole lot of money to support herself and to save funds on the side in secret. Selma lives in a trailer home with only her son and has become close friends with her landlord and cop husband who inherited a great deal of money some years ago. What seems to keep her going is her friend from work Kathy and her love of musicals. She is in the Sound of Music production as previously stated. It's easy to tell they've got a lot of work to do. They're stumbling quite a bit through the songs. This is a good, lighter opening to the film that makes it easy to jump into it despite being a little awkward seeing them stumble a lot. Does make me think of some of the productions I've been in when we didn't know what we were doing yet. Shortly thereafter it moves onto what Selma does for work. She works in a factory with heavy machinery which is where a fair chunk of time is spend in the film. This is also when we first see her express herself as a mother in the story. Now, I felt the introduction of her character was a little unfortunate. I get that she is upset her kid isn't in school but I also felt she was a bit harsh. Either that or I was surprised to see her so heated so quickly. Made me wonder how the rest of the film would be if that's how she was. Strangely that's one of the few moments we actually see her angry. What I soon learned was how much I liked Selma's character, something Bjork helps deliver really well. I really appreciate the humble, naive type of person you may run into in life. I can easily say I knew a few people like that mostly in college and I really liked them a lot because they're easy to be around. This is especially true when you need to be around someone who is easy to be around. I also find Bjork to be adorably cute in this film. I can imagine many guys would have mixed feelings about that thought but I like her. Her soft spoken selfless nature is very appealing which makes her character's broken English easy to get around. Which brings me to my next point. Her accent and dialogue delivery was fantastic! I found her performance to be very believable. Sure it helps that Bjork isn't from America but I'm sure a lot of what she did was in a performance to make herself feel especially foreign. Like I said she has a tendency to quite a bit of broken English throughout. The thing is that I never found myself annoyed by it and I was always interested to hear what she had to say next. In short, I really enjoyed watching Bjork and her playing the character she did.

Despite living in poverty Selma seems to have at least a pretty decent life. She somehow has time and energy to be in a musical production albeit it's a very small community theatre, she has time for her child at night, her landlord and husband are very nice and friendly to her, and she even gets to go to the cinema pretty frequently to enjoy another classic musical, something she uses to escape from the harder parts of her life. Not only that but there's a pretty nice (only slightly creepy from my perspective) guy interested in her who offers her rides home from work on a nearly daily basis. This turns around with a confessional scene early in the film. One night Selma's landlord's husband Bill comes over and tells Selma a terrible secret of his. The large amount of money Bill inherited a while back is running dry. His wife just spends and spends because she "knows" how much money they have. Bill is far too afraid to tell his wife because he feels she won't love him anymore. His salary isn't enough and unless he gets more money within a month or so they'll be flat broke. To comfort Bill, Selma reveals a secret of her own as well. Selma's large, thick glasses showcase partly how bad her eyesight is. Actually, she reveals her eyesight is so bad that she will be going blind within a year. It's a disease she's had her whole life and she knew it would happen to her one day. This disease has been passed onto her son. Up to this point there has been hints given toward her frugal nature not just because of how little she already has but because she isn't "one of those mothers" which I'm assuming she means to spoil her child. On the inside she is hiding the fact that she saves up what she can on the side to help pay for a surgery to treat the inevitable for her son. Keep in mind this is also a disease he is unaware of. She hasn't told him because the stress and worry would only make it worse for him, and not just mentally. It's implied that the condition itself will get worse. It's at this point where it's made clear what she was doing at the eye doctor's office at the beginning of the film. She was looking over a sheet of the eye chart, cheating on her eye exam to avoid anyone finding out about her condition. It may be just me but even thinking back to my first impressions I didn't really feel like it was clear she had an eye condition until after she said something about it. Then it was VERY clear she had an eye condition especially with what followed in the film. It may have been just something I missed with my first viewing for all I know, but with first impressions I felt it wasn't really clear until it was told to us. Before leaving for the night Bill tests how bad her eyesight is and pretends to leave only to stand in the corner next to the door. Once Selma believes Bill is gone she goes to her secret hiding place for her money. Bill makes note of where it is and leaves. Who we thought was a nice and decent enough man turns out to be desperate and backstabbing in nature.

Since the severity of her condition is settling in she understands time is running out. She is nearly to the point of paying off the doctor's bill but wants/needs it quicker. Among other things she decides to take on the night shift to get paid more. With more pay comes more responsibility. Selma isn't lazy but does struggle with keeping up sometimes between her failing eyesight and her tendency to daydream on the job. This is the first of many moments where one of the more unique aspects of the film comes alive. I had no idea going into this film that it would be similar to a musical. A tone made up of the noises around her play through her head and she starts singing and dancing. What I liked most of all about this was that we got to see exactly what was going on inside her head while she daydreamed. It wasn't even a short glimpse, it was a full song and dance number. As I said much earlier I do not know Bjork's music at all. Since watching this film I've been tempted to look up her music for comparison sake... but until I finish writing this I'm not going to listen to any of it so I can hang onto a clear opinion of the music based entirely on what was presented in the film. What was presented in the film was fantastic. I like Bjork's singing voice with her unique way of speaking and diction. Not to mention the sound of her voice while singing I felt was nice to listen to. The song stays fun and exciting and the camera work HAS TRIPODS! It was finally a lot easier to look at this film with a balance, un-jolting camera wobbling around with every shot that moves (or intends to stay still). At this point I'm still trying to figure out the placement and purpose of this song and dance number. I get that it's her imagination getting her through work... there's got to be something more to it. By the end of the song it hits reality again where Selma is far too lost in her daydream to realize she improperly uses the machine she's working with, too distracted to notice it, and breaks it. This is the beginning of Selma's spiral into her demise with all the terrible things that happen to her. This mess up at her job eventually leads to her being fired.

The second song that shows up is initiated by a comment Jeff, the man who has a crush on Selma, makes in regard to her sight. Each day after work he shows up to give Selma a ride home in the hopes of creating a bond where they can be together. She consistently refuses choosing to ride home on her bike instead. On the day she's fired she is out much earlier than usual and for the first time hoping Jeff is there to assist her, he isn't. It's earlier than usual for him to be there so she decides to walk home by the train tracks. She uses the tracks to find her way home since she cannot see well enough on her own. When Jeff shows up Selma is long gone. He runs to catch up with her on the track where they meet at a bridge. When the train starts heading their way Selma moves off to the side of the track, as does Jeff, but Selma still makes sure to mention to move to the side because the train is coming, not noticing that he has already moved. That and some behavior she is showing he says "You can't see, can you?" The subject matter of this song is how Selma has seen it all. It feels like this song is her internal monologue on how she's made peace with not being able to see any longer. In the song (in her head) Jeff asks about different sights and sounds of the world she is yet to see. Her reaction to all of them is a smaller comparison of the same thing or that she doesn't care about seeing what he mentions. It's around this time I realize the songs come into play when she is in the most stressful moments in her life. Here's a guy who is interested in her, and she is sorta interested in him but doesn't have the time for a boyfriend, who is confronting her about her sight so she escapes by singing about it in her head. What I took away from the song's lyrics was Selma making excuses. I believes she really does want to see all these things Jeff sang in the song, only she wanted to make it appear she didn't care as a way of dealing with the idea she won't see anymore inevitably. By the end of the song it cuts back to the train just passing by them with a lie about her sight. She claim she can see just fine. She isn't fooling anyone. It's very obvious to everyone around her how bad her sight has gotten.

Where the plot turns into an even more depressing direction is when all of Selma's saved up money is stolen by Bill. I knew this would be coming but it's sad to see what happens in the meantime. Selma may be naive but she isn't stupid. The first place she goes to is Bill to confront him about his crime. He promises she'll have it back in a month (An empty promise if you ask me. As far as I'm concerned he was never planning on giving it back). She takes it only to be threatened by a gun. Her resistance is strong but her emotions are not. She does all she can to walk away with the money. Only she is covered in tears on top of it. An accidental shot hits Bill and he finds himself on the ground begging Selma to shoot him. Bill hates his life and would rather be dead than out of money and admitting to his wife they're out of money. He went as far as stealing from a soon to be blind woman. He is now choosing death over admittance. When he was first introduced Bill felt like such a nice, level headed guy. His actions here make him to be a huge coward. He's a liar and a thief (But he only "lied about being a thief"). It's easy to see Selma doesn't want to kill, who would want to? Her bawling while shooting him blindly by covering her eyes and looking away, then to finish the job by taking Bill's safety deposit box and bashing his face in with it brought on such a sense of sadness. Here is a sad and desperate woman who was driven to kill to get the money she needs for her son. Again such a selfless act... only a selfless act with mixed emotions from those watching. Her next song following the murder is about her doing what she had to do. I realize she was out of options, or at least the options in clear sight but was murder really the way to go? Maybe in the midst of a stressful situations it can be an action that comes up to compromise the situation... but still. Even in a situation like that it must be easy to think that it could only make things worse. Here's Selma, who just killed Bill, who has been lying to his wife about the money and a few other things about Selma (claiming Selma is in love with him) so everyone and everything is against her. The saddest part is that there is no way out for her except to flee. Only that isn't an option either because she doesn't have the resources to do so. She has been placed in a situation where there's no way out for her. She has a way to save her son, but that's about it. So she convinces herself she did what she had to do considering the situation.

Following the murder Jeff comes to Selma. He takes her away from the murder scene eventually stopping at a particular location where Selma takes the rest of her journey by foot instructing Jeff not to follow her. She begins walking, eventually walking to the hospital where her son will get his surgery. She pays the doctor (Played by Udo Kier, I can't wait to review Flesh for Frankenstein, I love that movie) and walks back to Jeff. I had some confusion with this brief moment of the film. First, if Selma is so blind that she couldn't tell a man was in the same room as her (When Bill hid to see where she hides her money) and she needs to walk along the train tracks as a guide to get home how on earth did she find her way to the hospital on an open path without the crutch of a track that sticks out of the ground? It just seems odd that she could make it so far on her own. We've been set up with such horrible eye sight so I don't know how it all works out in the end. Also another thing I was wondering was the instructions Selma gave Jeff. She told him not to follow her but she never said or hinted at anything about having him there when she gets back. Was it at Jeff's own free will because of his feelings for her or did I miss something along the way? Regardless, once she gets back to Jeff's car he mentions how she can still make it to rehearsal. So they go to the rehearsal but word has traveled far enough to her director where if she shows up, he calls the cops. He does everything to keep her there waiting for them to show up by having her watch what they've been rehearsing. This is the only song where I don't feel it is based on the stress of the situation. It came off on the enjoyment of the situation. I guess it could be argued that Selma is stressed knowing the cops are on the way to arrest her so she's just enjoying the best of the situation. I don't feel she's smart enough. She's been so ignorant (but in such a sweet way, I love Selma's character) I believe she loses herself in the song and dance. If she were stressed about being taken away knowing the cops are on the way I feel she would have reacted in a different way. So here's another conflict in story. Selma doesn't seem to be the smartest egg in the batch, but if this is her intention to just enjoy some good song and dance before being arrested why wouldn't she do something even smarter than that? Why would she go straight to someone who knows her VERY well and everyone who knows Selma knows this about her. It's like seeing in a cartoon the sign that points "safety" one direction and "certain death" the other direction and the character chooses death. So either the song is initiated by the joy of the song and dance which would contradict when all the other songs come up or it would be out of stress knowing what's to happen conflicting with what I believe her mindset would go toward. Either way it felt like it was contradictory.

As expected Selma is put on trial (She sings and dances, there are twists and turns both literally and figuratively) and eventually found guilty of murder. She is given the chance to have another trial in order to avoid the death penalty, the only problem is the money to pay the lawyer hired to do so would be the money she saved up for her son's surgery. This she declines. The choices made during the trial scene and scenes that follow somewhat frustrated me because I felt like she was wasting so much away by keeping her soul pure and helping those around her. She lies about some key details at the trial so she wouldn't reveal the secret Bill told her despite the fact that he stole from her and forced her to murder him. She was still strong willed enough to keeping the secret. She could be fighting for her life so she doesn't widow her son but she doesn't. This and a few other details are hinted at what lead to her death sentence. I do wonder if she tried to tell everyone exactly what happened and the truth behind everything if it would go through. I doubt it would be believed that Bill had no more money or that he asked to kill her. There isn't any sort of evidence toward that. It would also be hard to convince that Selma didn't just try and steal Bill's money because she and Bill are the only ones who knew about her secret stash. Lastly there's no way to tell if her son really has this disease because it hasn't grown enough in his body to be considered evident enough. It doesn't help she cheated on her eye test early in the film either. Really makes me wonder if she did try fighting for her life if it would have helped. It could have made the story even more heartbreaking, or it could have made it more cliche, too.

Now the final scene. I... loved... this... final... scene. It is so heartbreaking. The most heartbreaking of all was the song she sang right before she was hanged. Much earlier in the film Selma talks about why she always left a musical before the last song. She could always tell when a musical would end which she did not like, ever. It made her sad. So she always would leave right before the musical was to end so that way it doesn't come to a conclusion and the musical lives on. The final song Selma sings (With a rope around her neck ready to be hung) is an a cappella reworked version of a song titled "New World," although man fans have given their own titled to it being, "The Next To Last Song." In the appropriate manner of the film Selma painfully (It sounds beautiful, trust me. I mean "end of your life" emotionally painful) sings the song almost to the finish when suddenly she drops down and is executed before finishing. Despite knowing her fate it still hit with great impact, just like the rest of the film.

I was eventually able to move beyond what I felt was poor camera work. What helped was Bjork herself. The songs were amazing and would re-watch this again for those alone. This is one of the better film experiences I've had in recent memory. I still liked some other LVT more (Mostly Dogville!) but this one will rank up there as one of the better films I've seen in my life. I can't wait to watch this one again. This is a truly special piece of cinema that needs to be noticed and remembered and passed down. It's very unlike most things you'll see. You can even say it's very foreign in nature. It doesn't play or act like an American film, which in this country helps a lot.

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