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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.35:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 45.35)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish
  Extras
  • 5 Theatrical trailer
  • Audio commentary
  • Cast/crew biographies
  • Photo gallery
  • Animated menus
  • Interviews
  • Documentaries - "von Trier's 100 Eyes"
  • Web access
  • Filmographies

Dancer in the Dark

Palace Films/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 135 mins . MA15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

With movies from the de facto cinematic mecca of Hollywood arguably becoming ever more trite, cynical and generic with each passing year, those with a passion for cinema are turning ever more frequently to the UK and Europe for signs that the medium is still alive and well, still capable of being vital, daring, provocative and exciting. Danish director Lars von Trier is no stranger to such descriptions - a one-of-a-kind auteur (though he’d most likely despise such a term being applied to him) he has constantly dazzled and challenged audiences with both his film and television work. Best known internationally for his visually groundbreaking Europa (released here as Zentropa) and, more recently, the emotionally charged Breaking The Waves, von Trier has made a virtual policy of doing something different with every project, both technically and artistically. A single-minded, almost egotistical man, von Trier was brought up on classic Hollywood films - but while influences of those permeate his work to this day, it’s his own desire to approach filmmaking from a completely different direction that has had more of an impact on his recent work.

The Dogme concept that von Trier and some of his directing colleagues initiated in the spring on 1995 was an attempt to counteract what was seen as a stagnant medium. This manifesto incorporates a set of ten rules known as the “Vow Of Chastity” that dictate a new way of making movies - rules that almost attempt to “re-purify” cinema by deliberately defying convention. While von Trier has only made one Dogme film himself - 1998’s The Idiots - the rules and freedoms that Dogme puts in place have become a key element of the director’s work from Breaking The Waves onwards. Dancer In The Dark finds von Trier once again playing by his own set of rules, though this time his visceral, near-documentary style of filmmaking is married with the very essence of old Hollywood musicals in a work that ultimately challenges American society and culture with an often none-too-subtle hand.

In her first acting role, singer and songwriter Björk plays Selma, a worker in a Middle American tool factory in the 1960s. The tedium of her production-line job is tempered by her passion for music in general and musical theatre in particular, and as the film opens she is preparing to star in a modest stage production of The Sound Of Music. But Selma’s eyesight, bad since birth, is rapidly failing her, affecting both her ability to do her job and to perform on stage. While accepting that there’s little she can do about this, she is intensely concerned for her young son Gene, who has inherited the same eye condition from his mother. Selma is saving whatever money she can to pay for an operation to save Gene’s sight - but those plans are thrown into disarray when she is betrayed by a trusted policeman neighbour, who takes her saved money to pay off a debt and sets in motion a chain of events that inexorably lead to unthinkable tragedy.

Ostensibly the third in a trilogy of films (with Breaking The Waves and The Idiots) known to some as the "Goldenheart" Trilogy (after a Danish children’s book that made an impact on the young Trier), Dancer In The Dark once again is shot in a deceptively “loose” style, the handheld camera constantly moving from character to character as though it were a pair of eyes (and with von Trier himself manning the camera for most of the film, it very nearly is exactly that). The initial impression is one of disorganisation and chaos, and when the dramatic scenes are contrasted with the musical segments that pop up from time to time (they exist, essentially, in Selma’s imagination) the unconventional style feels very much like a fly-on-the-wall account of something very real. It’s only on subsequent viewings that the intricacy and deliberateness of everything here becomes apparent - it may not seem that way at the start, but nothing that you see in Dancer In The Dark is an accident, from the acting to the photography to the deceptively simple sound design. It’s genius filmmaking of the highest order, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise to long-time von Trier fans.

Actually, the term filmmaking is something of a misnomer for Dancer In The Dark: despite the scale of the production and an undoubtedly sizable budget, von Trier has chosen to shoot this production on digital video, using both high-end professional cameras fitted with anamorphic lenses and consumer DV camcorders (the latter are especially used in the musical sequences, which were captured with 100 fixed cameras of all sizes scattered around the set, the director sifting later through dozens of hours of tape to assemble a single scene). It’s an interesting artistic decision - while von Trier has used video before, it’s been restricted to the Dogme-style, low-budget The Idiots and his television work with the acclaimed mini-series The Kingdom (Breaking The Waves was shot on Super 35mm film). The result (presented in a “scope” 2.35:1 aspect ratio, to our knowledge the first time this has been done with a feature shot on video - though it certainly won’t be the last) is unexpectedly immediate, and makes it far easier for the viewer to accept the reality of the drama being played out before them. It also, of course, gives von Trier both greater freedom of movement during the dramatic scenes and an opportunity to try the 100-cameras concept during the musical numbers - needless to say, having 100 35mm film cameras rolling for one scene would be impossibly expensive.

That’s not to say that Dancer In The Dark looks subjectively “bad” - while this isn’t the highest-end digital video you’ll be seeing in coming years, director of photography Robby Müller (a Wim Wenders veteran who also shot Breaking The Waves) helps to create a unique look for the visuals here. Taking into account the inherent problems of the video format that we’re all very used to from low-budget television drama - such as lack of contrast range and an almost surreal sharpness - he lights every scene as though it was destined for film, and does so subtly and unobtrusively. Meanwhile, the musical sequences are defined by their colour - for the dramatic scenes, the colour has been deliberately desaturated, giving the viewer a clear idea of the line between “reality” and Selma’s fantasy.

The story here is a simple one, a tale that really comes down to the love of a mother for her child - but there’s a lot of subtext here, with von Trier’s very cynical view of America - its obsession with money above all else, even humanity and justice - coming ever closer to the surface as the drama progresses. In fact, von Trier freely admits that his script here makes use of blatant melodrama in the process of telling its story; while this sounds trite in principle, it’s actually a very effective working method.

The final scenes are immensely harrowing and disturbing, yet curiously uplifting at the same time; a lot of the credit for that has to go to Björk, whose performance here is truly remarkable. While there were many, many serious disagreements between Björk and von Trier on the set (she has said that as a result of her experience on Dancer In The Dark she will never act in a movie again), the finished movie is a real showcase for what appears to be an astonishing dramatic talent (Björk won the Best Female Performance award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival; the movie itself won the coveted Palme D’or). The supporting cast are varied and very, very good, particularly Catherine Deneuve as Selma’s workmate and friend Kathy.

Björk’s songs are outstanding, too. Performed very much in the style that fans of her records will be familiar with, but with lyrics by von Trier and a greater emphasis on “industrial” percussion sounds to tie in with Selma’s perception of the factory’s machine noises as rhythms, they’re songs that might seem a little incongruous give the period in which the movie is set, but ultimately this serves to enhance the impact of the film. The song played during the closing credits (the heavily orchestrated New World) is one of the best she’s done in years.

Never content to be anything less than challenging and innovative, von Trier has created a superb drama with Dancer In The Dark, one that doesn’t make any concessions to what’s considered “normal” in modern cinema. His fans won’t need any convincing, but those unfamiliar with the world of von Trier need not hesitate to experience this masterful work, one which gets better with repeated viewings.

  Video
Contract

The completed movie was blown up to 35mm film for its theatrical screenings, and this combined with the constantly moving camerawork made Dancer In The Dark something of a challenge for many cinema audiences. But on DVD, the movie can be seen for the first time in its original digital video form, and it looks all the better for it. Presented in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 16:9 enhanced, the picture quality here is as close to the final master edit as is possible on home video, warts and all. Some of the footage shot on low-end cameras looks as grungy as you’d expect it to, but for the bulk of the movie we’re treated to von Trier and Müller’s innovative visuals in exactly the form the director intended - and yes, that does mean that the bulk of the video here uses a limited, desaturated colour palette, which may initially disturb some who are more used to the lavish visual style of “normal” movies.

Obviously the sharpness of digital video and the sometimes-frantic hand-held camera movements present some serious challenges for a DVD authoring team; but the encoding crew at Denmark’s Angel DVD have done a magnificent job here, and while there’s some motion blur on fast pans from time to time as well as very rare moments of aliasing that you really have to be looking for to notice, the encoding here is absolutely flawless. Bear in mind that with no telecine (film-to-video transfer) being used here at all, the video that you’re seeing represents what von Trier wanted exactly. If you’re after a gee-whiz visual showcase for your DVD player, you’ve bought the wrong disc - but for those who are here for the movie, you’ll see it on DVD with substantially better picture quality than you would have seen in the cinema. A large amount of data bandwidth has been dedicated to the movie itself, and while there’s a generous supply of extra features on the disc, the visual quality of the movie is never compromised.

Incidentally, the opening montage of paintings by artist Per Kirkeby is included on this disc; the gorgeous orchestral overture that precedes the movie was played before the curtains opened in European and Australian cinemas, but the montage seen here was added both for US theatrical release (curtains are not used in most US cinemas) and for worldwide video versions. Richly beautiful visually, this montage is, surprisingly, a welcome inclusion, one that von Trier has stated he is delighted with.

  Audio
Contract

As with the video, don’t expect the standard fireworks show with the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track here. Because the sound for Dancer In The Dark is, for most of the movie’s running time, in glorious mono. This is, of course, a deliberate decision, enhancing the “documentary” shooting style with audio that sounds like it could have come straight from the cameras’ microphones (in truth, a lot more care has gone into the audio here than you’d think, as the commentary track reveals).

The musical numbers, though - as well as a few choice sound effects - spread out across the full 5.1 sound stage, and those with multichannel systems will be in for a treat there. The songs are different mixes to the ones that appear on the soundtrack album (it’s available as a Björk album under the title Selmasongs) and they’re much better renderings of these songs, with cleaner, more natural fidelity. The songs all downmix extremely well to Dolby Surround or two-channel stereo.

Audio throughout is clean and refined, and though there’s a fair amount of tape and equipment hiss at times, it’s never distracting.

  Extras
Contract

First of all, an important point needs to be made here. The DVD of Dancer In The Dark that Australian audiences get is, in fact, the very same one released in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland - a DVD that’s been personally approved by the director (and, indeed, bearing his signature on the label along with the designation “Director’s DVD”). Indeed, the disc is a direct replication of the Scandinavian disc, authored by Angel DVD and provided to the Australian distributor as a glass master ready for pressing. This is a marvellous decision on the part of Fox Video’s Australian arm, and while it means that viewers here will need to make use of subtitles to utilise many of the extra features, we’re willing to bet that most in this country who want to learn more about this particular film will be perfectly comfortable with that.

In the US, Dancer In The Dark was released by New Line Home Video, who assembled a pair of English-language commentaries and edited a couple of short featurettes from a longer feature documentary (which we get the full version of on our disc). While the New Line offering may seem more generous in the extras department, there are many reasons why it is not, as we’ll detail here. It’s also unclear whether a film or video source was used for the US disc; its running time would suggest the former, which would not be desirable - but then, this PAL video production’s always going to look better on a PAL DVD regardless.

The disc starts with a choose-your-country menu that pops up after inserting the disc; from there, the main menu (with full-motion video and very appropriate audio) offers the choice of starting the movie, selecting subtitles (necessary for the documentary) and commentary audio, selecting a scene (all three of these menus are fully animated with music) and of course Extra Features. All menus are 16:9 enhanced and the design across-the-board is refined and appealing.

Audio Commentary: Accessed from the “subtitles and audio” menu screen, this commentary - by von Trier and sound designer Per Streit - is likely to raise eyebrows with those who inadvertently run across it by hitting the “audio” button on their remote - because this commentary is entirely in Danish from start to finish. Some may see this as a negative, and as previously mentioned the US disc of this movie features English-language commentaries. But von Trier has never seemed especially comfortable trying to express his thoughts and ideas in English, and freed to do a commentary in his native tongue he seems a lot more relaxed. He and Streit are obviously enjoying revisiting the work they did, and there’s a great deal of fascinating information here, along with anecdotes both amusing and insightful. Needless to say, von Trier isn’t about to take lessons in modesty (“what an impressively good film,” he says without a hint of irony at one point!) and he spends a fair bit of time musing on the breakdown in the relationship between himself and Björk. Those who don’t speak Danish will need to turn the supplied commentary subtitles on to “listen” to this track; the translation provided is extremely well executed, as are all the English subtitles on this disc.

Interview With Lars von Trier: A ten-minute collection of interview excerpts with von Trier, with the director speaking in English. While there’s interesting stuff here, this brief feature shows just how much better the man is at expressing himself when he speaks in his native language. Video quality is fairly sub-standard - this was most likely shot with consumer video equipment - and the letterboxed image is not 16:9 enhanced, one of the few things on this disc that isn’t.

Trailer: The two-minute theatrical trailer for Dancer In The Dark, one which focuses heavily on the musical segments of the film. Presented at 2.35:1, 16:9 enhanced and with stereo audio.

von Trier’s 100 Eyes: While the US version of Dancer In The Dark on DVD contains two brief featurettes, both of those were reportedly edited down from this full-length documentary. Running for 56 minutes, this Danish-language behind-the-scenes effort was directed by Katia Forbert Petersen, who obviously had extensive access to the set, the director and the crew during the making of the movie. Björk is nowhere to be found (mention appears to be made in the end credits here stating that she declined to be involved in the documentary) but don’t let that put you off - this is ultimately about von Trier anyway, and there’s a section here that was shot as the director and his team contemplate the future of the production after Björk walks out and cannot be located. Interestingly, von Trier insists that he completely understands why she - or any other artist, for that matter - would do so. Also covered here in some detail is the 100-camera method used to shoot the musical sequences, along with reams of other technical detail and insight. One of the best making-of documentaries we’ve seen in a long while, this is 16:9 enhanced and presented at 1.78:1, with material from the movie itself in its correct ratio. The encoding bitrate of this feature is quite low, a wise decision as it leaves more disc space for the movie itself; despite this, video quality here is high. Note that you will need to turn English language subtitles on for this documentary before viewing it; this is done from the Subtitles And Audio menu.

Choose A Dance: Direct access, via fully animated thumbnails, to the eight songs used in the film (including the closing credits, which is not actually a “dance”). Very handy for those wanting to go straight to a particular song.

Lars von Trier Biography: A very lengthy (17 pages of rather small text) and intelligently written biography of the director by Peter Schepelern, with two pages at the end devoted to his filmography. And there’s a bit of a surprise treat here - the filmography entries for Europa, The Kingdom, Breaking The Waves and The Idiots all link to theatrical trailers for the films, a really nice touch. The Europa trailer seems to have been inadvertently stretched too much horizontally, though this may have been intentional. The Europa and Breaking The Waves trailers are 16:9 enhanced, while the other two are 4:3 full-frame, as the productions they advertise were both shot (on video) in that format; those two are also in Danish with no subtitles.

Homepage: Just a screen inviting you to check out the Dancer In The Dark web site, which not surprisingly is located at www.dancerinthedark.com - a beautifully designed, content-rich site which offers a wealth of further information about the movie. It’s a shame this couldn’t have been included on the disc in DVD-ROM format, but in fact there’s very little disc space left that could have accommodated it. Those interested in the intensely technical aspects of the movie’s production will find plenty to keep them occupied on this site.

Production Stills: 32 modestly sized on-set still photos, presented rather stylishly on a kind of “revolving screen”.

  Overall  
Contract

While Dancer In The Dark certainly isn’t going to be everybody’s idea of a fun night with a movie, this is actually a surprisingly accessible instalment in von Trier’s fascinating career. Fox Video and film distributors Palace Films have made a brave but wise decision in giving region 4 customers the same DVD that’s offered European fans, a disc made with the full approval of the director. With the often-difficult visuals rendered superbly on DVD, a magnificent full-length documentary, fascinating commentary and other extras, the content of the disc is every bit as good as its technical quality. If you click with Dancer In The Dark, you’re going to be very, very delighted with this superb DVD - and hopefully we’ll see more of von Trier’s work on disc in Australia in the near future.


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