Importing Dancer In the Dark

Lars von Trier's musical drama Dancer In the Dark is one of those fairly early shot-on-(standard def)-digital films that begs the question, is there any point, really, to reissuing it on blu-ray?  You look at, say, 2002's 24 Hour Party People or 2006's Inland Empire, and apart from lossless audio or special features, there really isn't much reason to upgrade.  The HD transfers are nearly identical to their DVD predecessors; there's no substantive boost in PQ to be found.  And this film's from 2000, so it's even older than those.  But take one look at these screenshots, and it becomes immediately that this somehow not one of those situations.
Bjork stars as the third and final of his "Golden Heart" heroines (following Breaking the Waves and The Idiots).  She's obviously been brought aboard for her singing and song-writing, but she proves to be a damn impressive actress, too, playing an immigrant mother in rural 1960s America, working at a sink factory to pay for her son's eye operation.  Because she's going blind and it's hereditary.  Unfortunately the otherwise altruistic cop (David Morse in an unforgettable role) who lives next door plans to steal her money, and it all ends in grisly murder.  Only Bjork's love of Hollywood musicals can see her through.  Yes, it's very melodramatic (some of the courtroom material in the third act seems particularly unrealistic), presumably paying intentional homage to classic cinema plotting, but the direction and the performances manage to hold it together as a genuinely moving crime story.  Plus singing and dancing!  The supporting cast includes Catherine Deneuve(!), Cabaret's Joel Grey and cameos by Stellan Skarsgard and everybody's favorite Udo Kier.
New Line initially released Dancer In the Dark as a pretty nice special edition DVD in 2001.  Warner Bros reissued it as a DVR for their Archives collection in 2016.  But by then it was irrelevant because it had already been released on blu-ray overseas: a 2012 Japanese disc from Sochiku and a 2014 German disc from Koch Media.  I've gone with the latter.  And I guess now's as good a time as any to point out that the blu-ray is of the original, European version of the film, not the altered US version included on the New Line and WB DVDs.  There's only one difference between the two: the prologue.  Originally, it was just a black screen - with "PROLOG" written on it in white, as you can see above - because the intention was for the film to simply play the music with the curtains drawn, and they would only open at the end of the prologue for the start of the film proper.  Since American theaters don't always make use of curtains like that with their movie screens, he commissioned Danish artist Per Kirkeby (who also, I'm sure by sheer coincidence, happened to be married to the film's producer) to create a series of abstract paintings to play during the overture.  Anyway, that's the only difference.  Once the opening title card appears onscreen, everything else is the same.
2001 New Line DVD top; 2014 Koch Media BD bottom.
This film was shot in two ways: the bulk of the film in single-camera hand-held (the first set of shots), and the musical numbers was famously shot with 100 - sometimes more - fixed cheaper cameras with boosted saturation (second set), designed to give the musical fantasies a distinct look.  Well, the distinction is much clearer on the blu, where the colors are brighter and you can more easily see the shift between footage.  The DVD is also interlaced (yes, in both the parts of the film... also the extras), and just having the blu-ray clear that up would be worth the price of the upgrade.  But it's not just the interlacing; there's a lot of fugly compression noise on the DVD that the BD clears up.  And while both discs are presented in 2.35:1, the blu discloses just a sliver more image along all four sides.  If I had one complaint, it's that the blu's colors are overall an improvement, they do make the blacks slightly milky.  But then the crushed blacks on the DVD aren't much better.

Well, the DVD messed around with a bunch of extraneous audio options, giving us a 5.1 DTS mix, 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Dolby Digital, plus optional English subtitles.  It's nice to have options, but I'm happy to replace it all with Koch's lossless DTS-HD 5.1 track, though I do miss the English subtitles.  Instead we get (removable) German ones, plus a German dub, also in 5.1 DTS-HD.
So which version do you want?  Well, you're about to see the answer is both because these two special editions are packed with a lot of very different stuff.  Let's start with the DVD.  It has two excellent audio commentaries.  One is a stitched-together recording of Trier, producer Vibeke Windelov and editor/ technical supervisor Peter Hjorth.  Plus they bring in Per Kirkeby for the prologue.  Trier is always great in extras, Kirkeby and Windelov are some unique participants we don't get to hear from in any of the other extras.  Unfortunately, Hjorth's portions seem to just be snippets from one of the featurettes on this disc, but otherwise it's a must-listen.  And the second commentary is by choreographer Vincent Paterson, which might sound like a bore, especially since there's only dancing in like a quarter of this movie.  But no, check it out, he's really interesting and has a lot to say about the experience behind the scenes of this movie.  Plus, he played a role in the film and turned out to be a de facto musical director on it, so he was really involved with much more than just the choreography.

Besides that, there are two featurettes: a more technical one that interviews Trier and several crew members about the techniques they invented for this film, and one with Paterson who shows a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage he shot, including an additional musical number that was scrapped before final photography.  Both are essential viewing.  There are also three alternate edits of a couple musical numbers from the film, plus the trailer.
The blu-ray has basically none of that, except for the trailer.  Instead, it has its own unique package of special features.  The highlight here is definitely the audio commentary by Trier and sound designer Per Streit.  Trier is beyond candid in what he likes and dislikes about this film, including, yes, his struggles with Bjork.  He skirts around the more serious allegations that have come out in recent years, but delves deeply into the artistic power struggles they had during the filming, plus there are additional insights into the film itself that none of the other extras examined.  We also get on-camera interviews with Trier and Bjork that don't run particularly long, but this is the only point on ether disc where we actually get to hear from Bjork herself, so they're welcome additions.  And all of these extras are completely English friendly.  The only extra that isn't is a brief collection of behind-the-scenes footage that is partially in English, but also has some Danish voice-over by Trier that they only translate into German.  Oh well.  The blu also includes reversible artwork so you ca hide the large, green ratings logo.
So is the blu-ray worth importing?  Yes, get it!  This is a substantial upgrade over the DVD, and you'll want to hear the new commentary.  I was just hoping for the interlacing to be fixed, and was happy to discover much more than that.  But hang onto your old discs, too.

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