In the 1979 Carl Reiner film, "The Jerk," Steve Martin's dimwitted character, Navin Johnson, never could manage to find the beat, despite him being "born a poor, black child." In director Lars von Trier's latest effort, his protagonist - a Czechoslovakian immigrant known only as Selma - has the polar opposite problem.
Her dilemma isn't the inability to follow the beat, but instead the hypnotic effect any rhythmic sound has on her. During such moments involving the repetitious sounds of a tool press or that of a passing train click-clacking its way over a train trestle, Selma suddenly imagines herself in a full-fledged musical number, complete with singing, dancing and other highly choreographed musical elements.
Although that might make "Dancer in the Dark" - the winner of the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival - sound like a fun throwback to the charming and lighthearted musicals of yesteryear - such as was the case with Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost" -- the truth is anything but that.
While not all musicals have to be cheery and upbeat throughout - with productions such as "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Sweeney Todd" proving just that - this may just be the first musical about progressive blindness, murder and time spent on death row, all shot in the annoying cinéma vérité style that's popular with a handful of artsy directors.
Some may think there must be a farcical or satirical angle to all of that, but writer/director Trier ("Breaking the Waves," "The Idiots") is obviously intent on maintaining most of the proceedings as a drama, albeit a truly bizarre one that's certain to divide audiences into those who absolutely love or hate it. While I'll admit that the film has its share of powerful and/or disturbing moments as well as an overall intriguing premise, the way in which it's shot and ultimately told pretty much derails the efforts, resulting in a serious and messy train wreck of a film.
I'll readily admit that part of my problem with the film is that cinéma vérité style in which it's been filmed. While not of the true Dogme 95 conventions that Trier has used before, the film has plenty of the requisite handheld and shaky camerawork, out of focus shots, jump cuts and other technical snafus that would normally result in such an "artist" being flunked out of film school.
While some argue that vérité is "pure" cinema - as the filmmaking process isn't supposed to distract from or alter what's being shot (although it does) - I see it as nothing but lazy and simplistic filmmaking (where no attention has to be paid to continuity, etc.) that's likely either to wear down the viewer's senses or induce a bout of cinematic seasickness and nausea.
That aside, Trier's technique of telling his story ultimately undermines the film. Although the underlying, basic plot works and is intriguing in its own right, the story isn't that engaging for a variety of reasons. For one, while we observe the protagonist's passion and determination in making and saving enough money for her son's eye surgery, we're never allowed to sympathize with her and/or her son's plight as fully as we should.
Part of that's because the film doesn't show enough scenes of them together or of the son being an engaging and/or interesting character. While we realize/are told that we're supposed to care, that doesn't automatically occur, especially without the necessary means required to back that up, and with the inducible mechanism being far too evident.
The film's bigger problems, however, are all of the contrived moments that occur during it. One of them concerns a pivotal plot element that flips the movie over and sends it careening down an embankment from which it can't and doesn't return. While that particular violent act may have worked on paper, it comes off as too much of a plot contrivance in executed form and leads to a prolonged sequence concerning a character being on the lam, going through a court case and then spending time on death row.
Not only is that an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events, but it goes on way too long - making the film run far beyond the two hour mark - and becomes so goofy (but not funny or amusing), that the ending becomes nothing short of tedious (although I'm sure there will be viewers who find it moving and emotional).
Worse yet are the musical numbers that do absolutely nothing for the film and feel too self-indulgent. Most such musical numbers are usually present in films of the genre for a variety of reasons. Not only do they allow for the general introduction of singing, dancing and highly choreographed production numbers, but they also give the characters a unique and perhaps the only way to express themselves while helping propel the story forward.
When the musical numbers here suddenly crank up, they bring the film and its momentum to a dead stop. While they're decently choreographed and obviously present to represent Selma's fantasy/escapist world where everything is better, happy and cheery (symbolized by the only moments in the film that look halfway decent and momentarily jettison the cinéma vérité approach) the music and singing aren't exactly memorable in composition or delivery.
That, and the fact that you can't understand many of the lyrics -- thanks in part to Björk 's accent and her style of singing that may be appropriate for her everyday type of music, but not that of a musical -- results in the film being stopped dead in its tracks every time.
As far as the acting is concerned, I don't recall the last time I had such a conflicting reaction to a lead performance. Donning thick glasses and an unflattering hairstyle and wardrobe, Icelandic singer Björk (who makes her feature film debut) delivers a performance that's all over the board. At times mesmerizing and disturbing and at others amateurish and flat, her acting might have an untrained, natural feel to it, but it will probably have viewers' reactions as divided as they are over the film in general.
Catherine Deneuve ("The Last Metro," "Indochine") delivers a decent supporting performance as the caring best friend, but isn't allowed much range within her narrowly defined and barely developed character. David Morse ("Bait," "The Green Mile") is as solid as ever, and despite having his character forced into a less than believable circumstance, he's good in what's essentially another limited role.
On the other hand, Peter Stormare ("Fargo," "Armageddon") can't do much with his meek character, Stellan Skarsgård ("Time Code," "Good Will Hunting") isn't present long enough to have much impact, and Joel Grey ("Cabaret," "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins...") appears only in an odd, courtroom-based musical number.
Had that one and the rest of the musical numbers been better - in either a more rousing and entertaining or deeply moving way - and if we were allowed to know and thus care more about the involved characters, the film may have been much better than it is. As is stands, it may have some powerful and disturbing moments, but it's otherwise too self-absorbed and pretentious in showing the viewer just how quirky and moving a film it thinks it really is. Thus, "Dancer in the Dark" rates as just a 4 out of 10.