Single mother Selma works two different jobs and scrapes by, in order to save enough money to give her son an eye operation that will save the deteriorating sight that she suffers. But when her landlord tries to steal her money, a tragedy unfolds.
Lars Von Trier continues to make films that shouldn't really work, but are nevertheless amazingly powerful. At once a musical and a meditation upon musicals (a bit like Pennies From Heaven), this is mostly shot Dogme-style, with edgy camerawork and improv-seeming performances, but segues into fantasised musical numbers.
The video blur look is brighter than the film's 'reality', but still not MGM glam, and the tunes grow out of rhythmic factory or scratch noises into Bjork songs that are nothing like conventional film music.
Sometime in the '60s in America (shot in Europe, because von Trier won't fly), Czech single mum Selma (Bjork) works in a basin factory so her son can have an operation which will prevent the hereditary blindness that has already put her in the dark. She goes to the movies with Kathy, who explains the images to her, and gently if devastatingly resists nice guy Jeff ("I don't want a boyfriend"). Selma dreams of an unreal world, but her 'real' life is just as fable-like. Cop Bill, Selma's self-hating wicked landlord, steals her cash stash and forces her to desperate acts that beg for an unhappy ending.
Bjork (whose accent easily passes for Czech) is marvellous in a difficult role, locking herself into real and symbolic prisons for a love she can barely express in words ("I just wanted to hold the little baby"). The songs work in context, though Bjork's extraordinary voice - perhaps best appreciated by those blessed with the auditory register of a dog - doesn't really sit well with the needs of even a musical as off-beat as this. Nevertheless, she's a star. In a sub-plot, Selma rehearses for a performance of The Sound Of Music, so Bjork even reinterprets My Favourite Things in her own style, at first comically but eventually to heartbreaking effect.
The storyline may be pure melodrama, but Bjork's performance and Von Trier's off-kilter direction turn it in to real tragedy. Haunting and beautiful.