Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
Director: Lars von Trier
Running Time: 140 mins
Dancer In The Dark (Danser i mørket) is a Danish film about an idealistic immigrant worker who travels to the United States expecting a world just like the movies, but soon finds herself in a devastating reality.
Lars von Trier’s reputation for heavy-going, devastating cinema is second to none, and there are arguably few films that stand out in his repertoire in that regard quite like Dancer In The Dark. An ingenious piece of work that features stunning emotion, innovative style, a fantastic lead performance and genre-breaking ideas, it’s an exceptional film from start to finish, but with its incredibly heavy emotional drama and bittersweet view of the world, you’ll be lucky to come out of it in one piece.
There’s so much to unpack with Dancer In The Dark, and I’m certain that, on first viewing, there’s a huge amount that passed me by. However, if there’s anything that you need to know before going into this film, it’s that it’s one of those films which you’ll only ever want to see once.
Dancer In The Dark is undeniably brilliant, and an outstanding, unique piece of work in all regards, but the level of emotional distress and sheer hopelessness it does bring about at times is beyond devastating, building through an unfathomably heartbreaking series of events to a final act that broke me entirely, even pushing me close to tears with such a crushingly depressing view of the world.
And yet, what makes the film perhaps even more upsetting is not its devastatingly sad view of the real world, but the destruction of hope and innocence in the form of Selma Jezkova (Björk), whose idealistic view of the world, boundless kindness and self-sacrifice, and passion for dreams and songs are ripped away from you in the cruelest manner imaginable.
Where Dancer In The Dark really hits home, then, is in the bittersweet juxtaposition of that idealism and the harsh, unfeeling realities of the world. Whether it be Selma’s gradual realisation that all is not like a Hollywood movie in the USA, the unimaginably selfish acts of the people around her, or the astonishing determination we see from Selma even in her darkest moments, there’s always something in Dancer In The Dark to bring you up, and then something just afterwards to bring you crashing right back down.
It’s that rollercoaster-like narrative that really makes the film so emotionally draining, as the film bounds back and forth from moments of heartwarming hope to sheer devastation again and again and again.
And what’s more, it’s in that vein that the film’s most unorthodox characteristic plays so well. Lars von Trier’s films are well-known for being heavy-going, long, slow and quiet, so it may come as a surprise that Dancer In The Dark is actually a musical, and features no less than six original songs performed by Björk throughout that stop the film’s harsh, sepia tones in an instant, and bring you into a bizarre but very poignant world of magical realism.
In part a brief respite from the story’s heaviest themes, and in part another level of bittersweet contrast that adds to the film’s emotionally draining nature, the musical numbers (although hardly the catchiest) are an ingenious, genre-breaking element of the movie that bring a unique and striking style to proceedings. Not only does the music take what has always seemed like the happiest, most positive part of any movie and making it play a depressing role, but the film also uses it in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive to this story, but rather a worthy and poignant element of the film as a whole.
In the lead role, Björk brings her unique singing voice to the table, but it’s the deeply upsetting nature of her bright-eyed, innocent performance that makes the film even more devastating. Struggling to make ends meet, suffering from a debilitating sight condition, and finding herself up against forces of horrifying selfishness, Björk hammers home her character’s almost undefeatable determination and kindness, but still brings an upsetting grit and capacity for depression that makes her character’s horrifying journey so striking.
If the film were to have seen her come up against every obstacle with a smile on her face, then the dramatic power of Dancer In The Dark would have been far less. Her determination and positivity are heartwarming to see, but the most devastating moments of the film come when even she can’t seem to go on any further, proving that no matter how much positivity one may have, there can always be forces to break you down somewhere or other.
In short, Dancer In The Dark is not a comfortable watch. While it impresses and surprises with heartwarming drama and gorgeous, innovative musical numbers, its most positive elements are principally a device to further its devastating emotional power, portraying a world that rips hope and kindness to shreds with horrifying cruelty, and gives no room even for those with a song and a dream in their heart, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.2.