Say what you will about Danish director Lars von Trier, but you have to admit he's full of surprises.
His latest film, "Dancer in the Dark," is a genre-bending extravaganza that can only be described as a musical tragedy.
It stars the pop-music icon named Bjrk, who's never appeared in a major movie before. Its premire at last spring's Cannes filmfest elicited boos and catcalls as well as applause and cheers - yet it went on to win the festival's highest prize, plus an acting award for Bjrk.
It opens in American theaters tomorrow after kicking off the prestigious New York Film Festival tonight.
It remains to be seen how prerelease reactions to the picture - complicated mixtures of enthusiasm, puzzlement, discomfort, and ridicule - will affect its US box-office prospects. Adventurous movie buffs will be lining up out of sheer curiosity, though, and even multiplex crowds might find it to their liking if they open their eyes, ears, and minds to the eccentric, but often compelling experience it offers.
Bjrk plays a single mother who supports herself and her little boy by working in a factory. She brightens her leisure time by rehearsing with her best friend (Catherine Deneuve) for an amateur production of "The Sound of Music," which contains plenty of the Hollywood-style songs that are her greatest pleasure in life. But her days are darkened by a realization that she's gradually going blind, and that her son will also lose his sight if she can't pay for an expensive surgical procedure.
The plot takes a startling turn when a trusted neighbor tries to snatch her savings away from her, leading to an eruption of violence and a series of increasingly grim events.
This isn't the sort of subject matter that movie musicals usually deal with. It would be perfectly at home in a melodrama or an opera, though, and Von Trier's larger-than-life style aims in precisely those directions. He blends over-the-top emotions with deliberately artificial techniques in ways that are difficult to describe but take on vibrant, passionate life when they're actually spilling across the screen.
Bjrk's beguiling performance deserves much of the credit for the movie's effectiveness, pointing to a potentially dazzling film career for this multitalented Icelandic star, who also composed the picture's score. Deneuve and David Morse are also effective in the generally good supporting cast.
Another key contribution is Robby Mller's explosive cinematography. It's especially powerful in the highly unconventional song-and-dance numbers - shot with an army of 100 cameras, in a radical departure from the minimalist Dogma 95 style that Von Trier pioneered in works like "Breaking the Waves" and "The Kingdom," his offbeat TV series.
The ultimate surprise of "Dancer in the Dark" is how richly it celebrates the joy of living even as it moves toward one of the bleakest climaxes in memory.
It's not for everyone, but those who take a chance on it are likely to agree it's one of a kind, for better or for worse.
Rated R; contains a great deal of physical and emotional violence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society