Danish director and Dogma 95 godfather Lars Von Trier's attempts to reinvent filmmaking continue with Dancer In The Dark, an unlikely jumble of elements that add up to one of the year's most wrenching, unforgettable films. Set in early-'60s Washington state, Dancer stars Björk as a Czech immigrant and factory worker who carefully sets aside every penny to pay for an operation on her son's eyes to save him from the congenital blindness quickly overtaking his mother. Aside from the ability to save her son, Björk's greatest joy comes from the Hollywood musicals she adores. As her sight recedes, these films increasingly dominate her fantasy life, allowing the film—otherwise shot on handheld cameras—to slip into fully realized musical sequences set to songs composed by Björk with lyrics by Von Trier and performed by a cast that includes Catherine Deneuve (a link to another innovative musical), David Morse, Peter Stormare, and Joel Grey. A bare-bones description doesn't quite capture Dancer In The Dark's richness, however. Von Trier traffics in a quality more compelling than simple irony and never relies solely on the contrast between the glitzy fantasies of Hollywood and the stark realities of working-class life. Each musical sequence arises naturally out of the rhythms and materials of its surroundings (a factory, a bridge, a house) and reflects an attempt by Björk to understand rather than escape her surroundings, to bring them in line with her own boundlessly generous and forgiving view of humanity. One number, beginning as a duet between heroine and villain, doesn't invent but simply plays up the antagonist's already-apparent pitiable side. But make no mistake: For all its technical advances and self-conscious construction, Dancer has a heroine in the old-fashioned sense. Noise has been made about Von Trier's tendency to run pure-hearted heroines through excruciating ordeals both here and in the closely related Breaking The Waves, but that's hardly without precedent. As much as it revisits the musical, Dancer also revisits the Stella Dallas-model melodrama of female sacrifice, another commonly parodied and neglected form that here is as effective as if this were its first example. But Von Trier's film might have seemed merely ingenious without Björk. Her second significant film role, and first since achieving pop stardom, thrusts the singer front and center in nearly every scene, a potentially disastrous dare that allows her vulnerable performance to guide Dancer past any notion of gimmickry, beyond any accusations of manipulativeness, and toward a cinematic experience that's at once primal and new.
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