Dancer in the Dark
Selma (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant and a single mother working in a factory in rural America. The salvation to her bleak existence is found in her passion for music, especially the all-singing, all-dancing numbers of classic Hollywood musicals.
But Selma harbors a sad secret: she is losing her eyesight and her son stands to suffer the same fate if she can’t put away enough money to secure him an operation. She has been earnestly saving her nickels and dimes for the boy’s medical procedure, but when her neighbor discovers her stash, soon the money disappears. Selma finds herself broke, jobless and accused of stealing the deceptive neighbor’s money. All this escalates to a tragic finale.
This isn’t your mother’s musical. Don’t look for the happy ending with the lead finding romance and dancing off into the sunset. It couldn’t be drearier had Kafka and Lenin collaborated on the screenplay. The lead even kills a man and is put on trial. If found guilty, she will hang. Now, I’m not going to give the ending away, but remember, it’s a musical t-r-a-g-e-d-y. Bjork, a recording artist with 14 albums to her credit, may be most appreciated by those who enjoy punk/new wave music. Although you are supposed to feel the actress’s ecstasy, pain and optimism through her voice, I found her singing more like listening to a demonic cat searching for a nighttime tryst. I didn’t think of it as singing so much as caterwauling. (Please note, I am not attacking her singing ability, just her musical interpretations.) As for her character, Selma is not merely simple-minded, but completely delusional. It’s not only difficult to relate to her, you just don’t want to. The film’s washed-out look and its dislocated use of hand-held camera motion is supposed to counter the fantasy musical sequences ala “The Wizard Of Oz,” when Dorothy realizes she isn’t in Kansas anymore. But the woozy camera bobs up and down so frequently, audience members may wish they had purchased Dramamine rather than jujubees. And those songs! They’re devoid of musicality. Like everything else in this production, they’re irritating. Repetitious also comes to mind. One lyric, sung in the courtroom prior to the judge’s verdict, consists of “You will always be there to catch me.” She dances around the witness stand and the jury box, repeating that one line, over and over, with bystanders doing choreography by stretching arms straight to the heavens as if they were the Sharks and the Jets being cool. (No, they are not reaching out to God. That would have given the number meaning and substance.) And okay, not every musical need end with a chorus of “Climb Every Mountain,” but new millennium composers shouldn’t be averse to giving us an occasional melody. Understand, I’m not berating the film’s original approach. But, unlike Shakespeare’s mournful dramas, here a moral is rather difficult to find. There’s a lot of suffering going on, with little hope to cling to. The morose production seems mounted for a captive audience residing in Hades. And with all that arm stretching, no one in the film is reaching Heavenward.