It begins with an overture, droning like a tugboat, out of which rises a plaintive seven-note theme played on French horns. On the screen we see a series of brightly colored abstractions — an apparent homage to West Side Story. The first jolt of the film comes when we move from this dreamy, pastel interlude to von Trier's gritty mise-en-scène of grainy textures and drained colors, swerving handheld cameras and seemingly random jump cuts.
The film takes place in a mythical Washington state in a 1964 which never happened. Its central character, Selma (played by the Icelandic singer Björk), is miserably poor, has a horribly monotonous job at a pressing plant, is going blind and has a son who needs an operation. The first third of the film is in von Trier's funky hyper-realist mode, showing Selma's involvement in an amateur production of The Sound of Music. It also spotlights her friendship with fellow factory drudge Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), her gentleness toward her frustrated suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare, Steve Buscemi's goonish sidekick in Fargo) and her kindness toward a deceptively sympathetic neighbor played by David Morse.
Mercifully, Selma has a rich fantasy life and the musical numbers are her elaborate daydreams. They’re filmed in attractive primary colors with the jittery camera now more willfully composed and triggered by her spacing out to such natural sounds as the repetitious stamp and wheeze of factory machines or the clacking of a passing train.
As the story goes from bad to worse to tragic, alternately naturalistic and almost comically improbable, the music worms its way past those defenses we've developed against the sight of filmic suffering. It would seem to take an odd mix of detachment and susceptibility to fully get into this, to coolly appreciate the audacity of von Trier's postmodern primitivism while at the same time allowing Björk's naively passionate music to pierce your hard-won veneer of sophistication. Personally, I thought it was fucking brilliant.
Opens Friday, October 6, at the Main Art Theater (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Read Adam Druckman's 5-star review of Selmasongs, Björk's Dancer in the Dark soundtrack album.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.