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New Line Home Cinema presents
Dancer in the Dark (2000)

"You know, when I used to work in the factory I used to dream that I was in a musical, because in a musical nothing dreadful ever happens."
- Selma (Björk)

Review By: Justin Stephen   
Published: March 22, 2001

Stars: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare
Other Stars: Cara Seymour, Vladica Kostic, Jean-Marc Barr, Vincent Paterson, Siobhan Fallon, Zaljko Ivanek, Udo Kier, Joel Grey, Stellan Skarsgård
Director: Lars von Trier

Manufacturer: Wamo
MPAA Rating: R for some violence.
Run Time: 02h:20m:37s
Release Date: March 20, 2001
UPC: 794043519925
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-CC+ A

DVD Review

Danish director Lars von Trier may very well be the most egomaniacal director working today. Proclaiming himself to be one of the greatest filmmakers alive, he scoffs at the traditional methods of filmmaking, preferring his "vow of cinematic chastity." However, no matter how difficult von Trier makes it for his would-be fans to like and respect him as a person, his recent films have proven him to be an innovative and powerful filmmaker. Dancer in the Dark is no exception.

Aptly titled, Dancer in the Dark is about a shy, sweet, and unassuming immigrant woman named Selma Jezkova, whose interactions with the visual world are rapidly coming to an end. Wearing glasses as thick as the bottom of an old-fashioned soda bottle, she cheats on eye tests to keep her hourly job in a factory in a small town in Washington State in 1964. Despite her poor eyesight, things seem to be going well for Selma. She is well liked and has several doting friends and co-workers who look out for her. A shy but determined local man named Jeff is clearly enamored with her, always waiting for her after work to offer her a drive home. Her landlords, a local policeman, Bill, and his wife, Linda, help her look after her pre-adolescent son. They live in a trailer on the back of Bill and Linda's property. Selma makes extra money in the evenings by packaging hairpins into cardboard display sleeves and she saves her money obsessively, storing it in a cookie tin which she hides behind her ironing board. All this hard work and penny pinching doesn't keep Selma from her true passion: music. At every opportunity she goes to the cinema with her best friend, Kathy, to see musicals. Also, once a week she rehearses with a local amateur production of The Sound of Music (she plays Maria). Despite her relative poverty and her physical handicap, Selma and her son seem to be leading a happy, albeit modest life.

Her contentment begins to unravel with a late night conversation with Bill. He comes to her, troubled, because she is easy to talk to, confiding to her a great secret. He is broke, unable to pay his mortgage, and the bank is just weeks away from foreclosing. Furthermore, he is terrified that Linda will leave him when she discovers that he no longer has the money to maintain their comfortable lifestyle. To ease his worries, Selma decides to share with Bill a secret of her own. Her eyesight is not just poor but it is rapidly failing. The doctors expect her to become completely blind in just a matter of weeks or months, the result of a degenerative and hereditary eye disease. To make matters worse, she has passed this condition on to her son. Since the condition can be cured with an expensive operation if the patient is young enough, all of the money she has been saving is to pay for this operation for her son when he turns thirteen. The $2056 she has meticulously socked away over the years is almost enough to pay for the procedure.

Unfortunately, her doctor's dire predictions about her failing eyesight are proven correct in short order and her efforts at hiding her condition from others begin to fail as rapidly as her vision. Selma's life begins to unravel quickly.

What I have just described sounds like a straightforward drama, but von Trier is too fond of pushing the innovation envelope to leave it at just that. Selma is so fond of musicals that she retreats into a fantasy musical world whenever she feels stress. Other characters in the film join her in her imagination and what results are six musical numbers interspersed throughout the last two thirds of the film. Von Trier co-wrote the lyrics to these songs and Björk wrote the music. The dances were choreographed by Vincent Paterson (Evita, The Birdcage), who also plays a supporting role in the film. Despite the presence of these sequences, Dancer in the Dark bears little resemblance to the traditional Hollywood musical of old. For one, this film is a heartbreaking drama, not a lighthearted romp like most musicals (West Side Story being one of only a few notable exceptions). Secondly, the musical sequences are not part of the plot, per se. They only occur in Selma's mind, and once the song is over the film carries on where it left off before her sojourn into her fantasy world. I admittedly have never been much of a fan of musicals. To be completely truthful, I generally avoid them like a plague. Regardless of this, I found this twist on a normal dramatic presentation to be both interesting and refreshing and, at the very least, memorable.

No matter what one might think of von Trier as a man or his stylish filmmaking style, there is no denying that he consistently succeeds in drawing terrific performances from his lead actors. Dancer in the Dark is certainly no exception. Icelandic songstress Björk (formerly the lead singer of The Sugarcubes and now a successful solo artist) turns in a remarkable performance in her first major film role. Her efforts were rewarded at last year's Cannes Film Festival with a Best Actress award. The film itself also took home the coveted Palm D'Or. The international supporting cast also shines, most especially French screen veteran Catherine Deneuve and Swede Peter Stormare (who seems to be everywhere lately with prominent roles in such films as Fargo, Armageddon, and Chocolat).

There are two things that many viewers of this film will have to get used to when watching Dancer in the Dark. First, they will have to get used to the vocal stylings of Björk, whose voice and music are far from traditional. Second, and more distracting, they will have to get used to the heavy ostentatiousness of von Trier's visual style. Having previously seen Breaking the Waves and some of his other work, this was easy for me to do. First time von Trier viewers might find this more distracting. He is a big believer in technically austere cinema. Every scene outside of the musical numbers is shot with an unsteady handheld camera. He favors rapid and frequent jump cuts and wild and jerky pans between speaking characters. The result can be mildly nauseating to the uninitiated. As von Trier states in one this disc's commentary tracks, there are two ways to shoot a film, "frame" and "point." Framing makes the filmmaker worry about how an image looks while pointing makes him worry about content. I am not terribly inclined to agree with him, but it is obvious to which of these two schools of thought he subscribes.

Probably no other film of the past year has polarized viewers more than Dancer in the Dark. Most of its viewers have regarded it highly. However, a significant minority of viewers and critics are quite vocal detractors of the film. I suspect that much of criticism stems from their negative views of von Trier himself. These negative views are not without merit, as it happens. As I alluded to in my opening paragraph, the man has an ego the size of a small continent (or just pretends to in order to generate controversy and attention). He seems quite adept at making pretentious public remarks and alienating his peers. Detractors of this film have also been quick to point out what they feel to be anti-American sentiments expressed by the film, or a scathing attack at the injustices of the American legal system. Others have likened it to boilerplate anti-Americanism and/or pro-Communism. The latter I just don't see at all and, as such, I discount such opinions. The prior, if it was the director's intent, is not particularly effective. Yes, an injustice is done in the film but it is an injustice that was initiated by an individual, not society, and the protagonist has ample opportunity to at least partially rectify the damage and chooses not to.

Critics of von Trier are welcome to debate the merits and subtle messages behind this film until they are blue in the face. Certainly, it is not a film without some flaws, most notable of which is an ending that is a bit overcooked. However, I found it easy to disregard such criticisms and the heavy visual stylishness that von Trier employs and just enjoy Dancer in the Dark for what, despite its few minor flaws, it is, a pensive, moving, and heartbreaking film.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Dancer in the Dark will certainly not set any new standards for pleasing, high resolution visual presentation. However, it is important to understand that the deficiencies of the image result mostly from either the nature of the equipment used or the intentions of the filmmaker. The film was shot on digital video rather than film. The result is an image that, naturally, isn't very film-like. The print is remarkably clean with fairly good gradation in the shadows and darker elements. Colors during most of the film have a very washed out appearance, which was the intention of the director. Contrasting this, the colors in the fantasy musical sequences are rich to the point of oversaturation. By this method, von Trier highlights the line between Selma's reality and fantasy worlds. One other noticeable distinction between the reality and fantasy worlds is in the visual quality and presentation. Most of the film was shot with a single handheld digital camera. With his quick pans and tilts, the image sometimes drops out of focus. However, smaller mounted Sony digital cameras (sometimes as many as one hundred of them) were used to film the musical sequences. As such, "jagglies" are apparent on many of the straight surfaces during these sequences.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Dancer in the Dark features both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS track. Now, before you get too excited, von Trier makes use of heavy stylistic elements in his audio presentation as well. Like with the image, audio contrast between the musical sequences and the rest of the film is significant. Most of the film is entirely monaural, with only the center channel speaker in use. On the other hand, Selma's frequent trips into her fantasy musical world feature full range sound on all six channels. Rear surrounds are primarily just used to bolster the music. Unfortunately, these full range musical sequences tended to be the most disappointing for me. I found the sound to be too heavy, often stomping on the vocalizations of the singers. A sound effect that occurs at the very end of the film is the only exception to this fantasy/reality auditory delineation so far as I could tell. The monaural elements of the film are fairly good for what they are, however. Dialogue is always clear and separation of elements within the single channel is quite good.

For the record, I performed a scene-by-scene comparison of the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks and could find no significant differences between the two. Dancer in the Dark also comes with a thinner Dolby 2.0 surround track.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 9 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English (subtitles and CC) with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Filmmaker commentary with Lars von Trier, Vibeke Windelov (producer), Peter Hjorth (technical director), and Per Kirkeby (artist). Choreography commentary with Vincent Paterson.
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:29m:38s

Extra Extras:
  1. DVD-ROM link to original theatrical website
Extras Review: New Line, with their Platinum Series releases, has long been building a reputation as source of high quality special edition DVDs that, on average, meet (or exceed, in my opinion) even those of the Criterion CollectionČ®. Dancer in the Dark is no exception, offering a wide array of quality supplements to go along with this film. Starting off, there are two full-length commentaries. The first, a "filmmakers" commentary, features director von Trier, the producer Vibeke Windelov, technical director Peter Hjorth, and artist Per Kirkeby. The comments for each are recorded separately and spliced together on a scene-by-scene basis. The second commentary is from actor/choreographer Vincent Paterson. Most of what he talks about, obviously, deals with the musical elements of the film. However, also having acted in the film he offers some very interesting details about the production of the film and what it was like to work with Lars.

Those interested in more information about the production of and story behind the film will be pleased to note the inclusion of a featurette and a short documentary. The first, entitled 100 Cameras: Capturing Lars von Trier's Vision, runs fourteen minutes in length and focuses mainly on the innovative, albeit not entirely successful, efforts to use as many as one hundred mounted digital cameras to film the musical sequences. This featurette features interview footage with von Trier, Paterson, and technical director Peter Hjorth as well as loads of production footage. The documentary, entitled Choreography: Creating Vincent Paterson's Dance Sequences, runs about twenty-four minutes in length and focuses on Paterson's creation of the six musical sequences featured in the film. Behind-the-scenes rehearsal and production footage, as well as extra footage not included in the film, is interwoven with Paterson interview segments and introductions.

Three alternate versions of musical sequences (one of Cvalda, two of I've Seen it All), access to all the music in the film, cast and crew filmographies, a DVD-ROM link to the theatrical website, and the original anamorphic trailer round out a terrific batch of extras.

Special note about the trailer: The included trailer is terrific, one of the best I have ever seen. However, it does contain a major spoiler so if this is your first exposure to Dancer in the Dark you are better off skipping it until you have watched the film.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Dancer in the Dark is yet another fine New Line Platinum Series release of a powerful film that you are likely to either love or hate.


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