Dancer in the Dark

Maybe it's the Scandinavian connection, but I have long been a big fan of both this film's writer/director Lars von Trier and its composer/star Björk, so I was really looking forward to their first (and no doubt last) collaboration. I'm also one of the first to say that neither artist is for everyone.

Trier warns you enough by describing this film as a "musical melodrama". As neither genre has many fans in the US anymore, it was no surprise that there was only a handful of people in the audience when I saw it, and most of them had European accents. Nevertheless, I was very much moved by this film, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to those who don't mind a bit of emotion, and who didn't hate Trier's earlier Breaking the Waves (more on this later).

Björk plays Selma, a Czech immigrant in 1964 Washington state who is eking out a living working in a factory – and slowly going blind, due to a hereditary disease that she fears will soon affect her 12-year-old son. Thus she scrimps and saves every penny she can in order to pay for his operation.

As Selma's eyesight worsens, a horrible event occurs that sets off a great tragedy. Yet whenever life gets too bleak, our heroine escapes into fantasy, where her grim circumstances are transformed into spirited song-and-dance numbers, and those around her – friends and tormentors both – become singers and dancers in the musical of her mind.

This gimmick may sound familiar: Dancer in the Dark is essentially Lars von Trier's riff on Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, the only major difference being that Potter's characters lip-synced to 1930s classics, whereas Björk sings her own songs (mostly cowritten by Trier himself). The film is also a variation on Breaking the Waves, showcasing what is now Trier's signature directorial style – handheld camera and noncontinuous editing, creating a documentary feel – as well as its similar theme of a saintlike woman willing to sacrifice everything for the one she loves.

Breaking the Waves made many women uncomfortable, as its innocent heroine was also a sexual martyr. Dancer in the Dark may be more palatable, as Björk's martyrdom is simply a mother's love for her child. That may be another of Trier's callow ideals of womanhood, and indeed, his script forces poor Selma to suffer so much that it becomes downright sadistic, but Björk's warmth – she's a natural actress – redeems Trier's harsh approach, and her songs are wonderful.

Dancer in the Dark asks a lot from its audience: some scenes are so intense that they are almost unbearable to watch (especially those with costar David Morse, who is amazing). But if you let yourself buy into it, as I did, the payoff is both beautiful and heartbreaking, the stuff of grand opera.