Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark launched 1,000 swan-dress jokes. But the habitually galling Danish director’s 2000 musical was a black-swan genre rarity — a 1960s-set sledgehammer to Broadway and Hollywood’s insistence on sunshiny endings in golden-era musicals involving Nazis, murder and suicide.
This old-school deconstruction felt dastardly — hearing “Climb Every Mountain” and a whimpered “My Favorite Things” here were wicked winks — and purposefully devastating, sadistically teasing to the final seconds.
Icelandic pixie Björk heedlessly throws herself into the role of Selma, a Czech-immigrant factory worker in Washington State going blind and saving money for surgery to prevent the same condition from striking her son, Gene.
Because “nothing dreadful ever happens” in musicals, they fuel Selma’s daydreams — fantasias appearing slightly less dingy than reality. “Cvalda” builds on machine clatter into something like a Metropolis dance number in Rosie the Riveter garb, and languid ballad “I’ve Seen It All” dresses up Selma’s resignation to blindness in a pretty list of accomplishments. (Dancer’s songs respectfully blend customary orchestral grandeur with Björk’s knob-twiddling squiggles.)
From there, von Trier shreds the score and never lets up. What happens shatters Selma, as well as our expectations that scrappiness and compassion will deliver her from misguided judgment. Meanwhile, Bjork’s performance deepens from an easy, simple-minded sprite into a single-minded parent anesthetized by popular culture to the point of no return.
If Bjork protested von Trier’s conclusion, she seemed to miss the point of the final, ice-on-the-spine song — the ending she wanted isn’t what many people get.