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Seeing Nothing Means Seeing Everything: Dancer in the Dark

by joseph palis

Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark is a compulsively watchable movie! This movie came out in 2001 and was awarded the Palme D'Or in the Cannes Film Festival and the lead actress award to Bjork. I don't know if the heaviness I felt right after watching the movie was due to my regular irregular breathing, or if the movie connected to me in ways too invisible to see.

Definitely an acquired taste for a number of reasons: the digital format Von Trier used to capture the slowly darkening world of Selma can off-put those who are used to conventional framing and those who were socialized to appreciate at close range the actors' facial tics via the magic of second units. Two, the often music-less scenes between characters conversing in whispers and semi-quavers. Three, the painful coming-apart of someone so fragile and beautiful can be heartbreaking at times resulting in sniffles and nervous clearing of throats. Four, the almost-surreal use of music is artless and devoid of fluid and symmetrical movements. Of course there are coordinated sequences showing cadenced steps, but the "musical numbers" come off unpolished -- just like the vision of a woman coming to terms with her incipient blindness.

There were several scenes in the movie that just surprised me with its directness and honesty that had me controlling sniffles. Like Selma's poignant version of My Favorite Things when she was consoling herself in her cell, or when Selma's friend Cathy lowered her head while clasping it when she saw Selma struggling in the gallows, or when Selma's friend/admirer Jeff's voice broke during his telephone conversation with Selma, and Selma's face herself when puckered with uncontrolled weeping. Its almost like watching a docu of a dead man walking (very much like the real Aileen Wournos in a chilling docu about her -- a suspected killer -- who was unrepentant this side of Meryl Streep's character in A Cry in the Dark).

The musical numbers from the point of view of Selma take a different color scheme and are less dizzying than real-life, although those scenes easily transcend those obvious dis-similarities. The raw power and naked emotionality of Bjork as Selma is the film's centerpiece, in my opinion. Its hard to think of any other actress who perfectly embodied the inarticulate and childlike qualities of Selma, other than Bjork. The singer's elfin features added to the drama. Its like seeing an innocent and too-special-for-this-world human being crushed out by this world's innate cruelty.

Which is not to say the characters who populate Selma's world are inordinately cruel and wicked and unremittingly redemption-less. Cathy is an example of a loyal, ideal and unhysterical friend. Her compassion and love for Selma knows no boundaries. That scene in the moviehouse where she was enacting by hand movement what was seen onscreen to Selma's naively happy face was most moving. It was bittersweet for its spontaneity and unexpectedness. Jeff is another human who sees Selma as a beautiful if delicate person. His genuine feelings and good will towards Selma is touching to watch. Then there's the female prison guard whose empathy for someone is heart-rending and at the same time surprising. Surprising, because these people must have seen scores of executions before their very eyes to be jaded and emotionless, but she took an almost maternal liking to Selma.

These "good" people (in the world of caricaturish "good" and "bad") were ably given their equivalents in those seemingly-harmless people but whose dint of character runs contrary to what Selma wanted.

Awesome visual images abound too. Like Selma's sylph-like dance in the water. An image that do not seem to call attention to itself. But like a meditative moment.

And those allusions to The Sound of Music make for a sad and Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity -- much like the unspeakable horrors of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. I am sure it will not be the same again for me if I watch those musical numbers in The Sound of Music.

And what great tragedy of the common. As if Guy de Maupassant wrote the story. And the great fallibility of the system of an "enlightened" country when it comes to interpreting sullen answers as gestures leading to admission of guilt. The rare glimpses of beauty as seen through Selma's doomed vision were so tears-inducing for the temporary relief it gives.

And then there are the supporting actors whose brief scenes indelibly leave a lasting mark. The ageless Catherine Deneuve as Cathy provided competent counterpoint to Bjork's heartbreaking naivete; Peter Stormare as a caring Jeff whose staid composure belied his very soft feelings for Selma; David Morse as a police officer whose unhappy life found a willing assistant in Selma; Jean-Marc Barr as an ambivalent employer; and Siobhan Fallon as a prison guard with an uncommon compassion and empathy for people who live on borrowed time. Plus, its nice to see Stellan Skarsgard and the great Joel Grey in cameos.

Meanwhile I am heading to a music store and get Bjork's Selmasongs, as "I've seen it all" in this movie.

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