The musical is probably the most maligned movie genre - and justifiably so. Nothing's more irritating than watching someone spontaneously burst into song, then start capering about with total strangers. Everything's false: so crisp and clean, so... damn... choreographed.
So musical-haters should avoid Dancer In The Dark like the Red Death, right? Wrong. Danish writer/ director Lars Von Trier's latest - and, arguably, greatest - pulls off that rare trick of both celebrating a genre and subverting it. And as Selma (Björk) expresses her intense love for Hollywood musicals, we're also encouraged to consider their preposterousness. Her docile, devoted kinda-boyfriend Jeff (Peter Stormare) observes, correctly, that he's never seen anyone burst into song in real life, while Selma herself notes: "In a musical, nothing dreadful happens". In both these senses, Dancer In The Dark is a very different musical.
Yes, there are seven full-blown song and dance numbers, but each is presented as a fantasy conjured purely by Selma. Ingeniously, the transition from real-life to dream is triggered by the an everyday sound - clanking factory machines or the vinyl clickings of a run-off record - which build into the next number. Selma's grainy, video-shot surroundings take on a Technicolor glow, and the harsh, blurred world becomes... A clean, crisp, choreographed song-and-dance.
And what songs! Each tune perfectly retains composer (and reluctant lead) Björk's engagingly offbeat style, while slotting into the mood of the film without a single spark of friction.
As for nothing dreadful happening, Dancer In The Dark simply oozes dread, as Selma's world becomes ever more threatening. We know her eyesight is failing, so every day in the factory is an accident waiting to happen, while her neighbour and friend, Bill (David Morse), becomes ever more untrustworthy. It's important to realise that Dancer is both a melodrama and a tragedy, and it's this, as much as the music, which will divide audiences. Either you let it carry you away, or resist and dismiss it as over-the-top nonsense.
But, trust us, it's worth giving two hours of your life up to Von Trier and Björk. The former has turned in his most expectation-confounding work yet, while the latter proves that she is capable of profound emotional malleability, moulding a performance that is warm, heart-breaking and harrowing. Chances are, this'll be the most involving and traumatic cinema experience of your year.
In terms of splitting audiences, Dancer In The Dark looks set to be this year's Blair Witch. Yet detractors are missing the point - Von Trier and Björk have created a melodramatic masterpiece, a musical which can be loved even by people who hate musicals.
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