A groundbreaking "dark" musical by Danish director Lars von Trier -- groundbreaking, anyway, if you have forgotten about, or never knew about, The Threepenny Opera, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones, West Side Story, Oliver, Sweet Charity, Catch My Soul, Pennies from Heaven, One from the Heart, Newsies, Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg and A Room in Town, Resnais's Life Is a Bed of Roses and Same Old Song, etc., etc., never mind the much larger realm of the tawdry "backstage" musical -- about an immigrant factory worker in Washington State in the mid-Sixties (the movie, in actuality, was shot in Sweden), who is rapidly going blind and eventually going to the gallows. Von Trier reduces the degree of daring in the concept by limiting the musical outbursts to fantasies only. The first of these, suggesting itself to the woolgathering heroine through the rhythms of the factory around her (an old-hat idea), occurs forty-five minutes into the action. After which, they occur at more or less regular intervals of every fifteen minutes for the next hour, before tapering off through the final thirty or forty minutes. If you need help with your math, that's almost two-and-a-half hours total. The songs, written and sung by the Icelandic pop star Björk, are unmemorable and inelegant, though as an actress she boasts a cute accent (vague British overtones), an impish face, and an absolute freedom from vanity. The really punishing part of the movie, however, is not the intermittent musical element, but the unrelenting god-awful image, which looks generally as if the color had drained out the bottom and left behind a residue of soap scum and mildew. During the fantasy sequences, shot on blurry video, the color brightens up a bit, but it looks somehow as if it were pressed on top of the image and could flake off at the flick of a fingernail. Either way, the image is an eyesore, not even counting the optical sadism of the jump cuts and jittery camera. It almost arouses envy for the blind. Which is not the same thing as arousing empathy. Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare. (2000) — Duncan Shepherd
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