Is it possible for a movie to be certifiably, arrogantly awful, genuinely off-putting and yet emotionally devastating at the same time? That's the reality of "Dancer in the Dark," the provocative third installment in the "Golden Heart" trilogy (following "Breaking the Waves" and "The Idiots") from Lars Von Trier, the controversial Danish director known for his informal leadership of the Dogma 95 movement. It's a loosely defined credo of filmmaking, designed to subvert supposed cinematic artifice via the advocacy of natural light, live sound and hand-held cameras.
Von Trier's latest experiment, starring Icelandic pop star Björk, is a weepy melodrama that references Hollywood musicals -- even a few clips of "42nd Street" -- and is sure to provoke one of the two reactions: Applause for the director's innovative, herky-jerky, often grainy video production that includes such bold strokes as a revived murder victim's participation in a musical number with the perpetrator of the crime; or frustration for the often unattractive effort marked by unexceptional performances, clunky dialogue, oddball singing-and-dancing sequences and a story that's pure emotional manipulation.
"Dancer in the Dark," shot in Sweden but set in Washington state in the '60s, has former Sugarcubes singer Björk making her film debut as single mom Selma, a poorly dressed Eastern European transplant with thick, black glasses. The Czech native, gradually going blind because of a genetic defect, is working night and day at a pressing plant, hoping to squirrel away enough money to pay for an operation that will keep her young son (Vladica Kostic) from facing the same fate as his mom. Selma is drawn as a selfless saint, constantly volunteering for double shifts at the factory and making a few extra pennies on the side by attaching bobby pins to tiny cards.
This icon of virtue, whose sole friendships are with supportive older co-worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), and Bill and Jean (David Morse and Cara Seymour), the couple who own the home Selma's renting, has a soft spot for the glamour and glitz and exuberance of musicals. So she spends her precious few off hours rehearsing for a community production of "The Sound of Music" and watching old movies at a local theater, with Kathy explaining onscreen action that is becoming increasingly fuzzy to Selma.
On the job, too, she can't help but get lulled by her rote duties. The industrial clattering and clanking on occasion take on hypnotic quality and voila! -- life is a cabaret or, rather, a curiously edited, color-rich musical sequence, starring Selma, Kathy and all the working stiffs. One hundred or more cameras were reportedly used for the seven musical numbers, each of which seems to lift Björk and the film to strange new places before crashing to the movie's more dominant, more mundane environs.
Life is ugly for the pitiful Selma, and it gets even uglier when she's accused of killing kindly Bill. Complications include a morose stay on death row, where prison guards morph into bit players in another elaborate musical sequence. It's difficult to imagine a scene as freakish as that of poor, pitiful Selma blasting out an unaccompanied version of "My Favorite Things" from her prison cell.
Björk, not trained as an actor, nevertheless stumbles and fumbles her way into one of the year's most disturbing, most affecting performances. Viewers annoyed by the director's tactics and tricks may be befuddled by the extent to which Selma becomes an emotionally resonant character. Does Björk deserve the credit, for making the best of a part that was largely improvised, according to reports? Or should Von Trier be saluted for designing a concept that nearly works? We may never know.