“I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen the dark
I’ve seen the brightness in one little spark”
Is there quite so uncompromising a director as Lars von Trier? Watching his films can sometimes feel punishing in its intensity, either exhilarating or exasperating depending on how you connect with the Dogme 95 manifesto that he co-founded. Strictly speaking, Dancer in the Dark doesn’t adhere closely to stipulated austerity of those rules but it is most definitely in the ballpark and as with so much of his work, it becomes near-unwatchable at the climax as it completely breaks your heart in the most brutal of ways.
With a tempestuous relationship with von Trier that has been well documented, Björk takes on the lead role of Selma, a Czech immigrant scraping by in a factory in Washington state, saving the pennies she earns for an operation for her son which will prevent a hereditary degenerative condition from robbing him of his sight. She is suffering in silence though, unable to tell people how blind she is becoming for fear of being sacked, and when a nefarious neighbour steals her money, he sets in chain a tragic sequence of events.
Selma’s sole refuge is the old Hollywood musicals that she loves to watch, or rather have described to her by close friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), and when real life gets a little too much, she slips into daydreams which make a musical out of her own life. The almost schizophrenic split between working class melodrama and all-singing all-dancing extravaganza could not be more marked but it finds a home in von Trier’s creativity and a breath-taking performance from Björk who fully inhabits her character with a rare totality that feels completely honest.
Deneuve is excellent as her compassionate workmate, David Morse’s policeman is nuanced in his desperation and I also liked Siobhan Fallon’s prison guard (oops, spoiler alert). The whole film is hugely original and lingers long and harrowingly in the mind, so much so that I don’t think I really need to see it again, as with Breaking the Waves and Amour it would just destroy me to put myself through that particular emotional wringer again. I’d recommend giving it a try but I rather suspect you all know already where you lie on this one.