In a dark theater, a pair of middle aged women sit and watch the classic Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933. In the midst of the infamous Pettin’ in the Park sequence, one of the women leans over and takes her friend’s hand. She starts to reenact the dancing with two fingers upon her friend’s open palm. For her friend, this is the closest she will get to experiencing the wonders illuminating the screen. Almost completely blind, she relies on her friend to narrate the film. One may wonder why bother? The answer is that the music and dancing is the only comfort that this woman can find in the cruel world of America. It’s getting harder and harder to do her job at an industrial factory when she can’t see which machine she is working at. A Czech immigrant, she is finding that the American dream is more elusive than she ever could have imagined. And to her horror, her only son, already constrained by a pair of coke-bottle glasses, is having more and more trouble seeing…
Such is the world of Selma Ježková, the tragic heroine of Lars von Trier’s devastatingly powerful Dancer in the Dark. A bizarre departure from the majority of Trier’s oeuvre, Dancer in the Dark is a harrowing film of unimaginable depth and emotion. One may ask what could possibly differentiate this particular film from the rest of Trier’s eclectic catalog. The answer is simple: for all his diverse exploits, this remains Trier’s only musical. Let me say that again. Lars von Trier, founder and poster child of the Dogma 95 movement, creator of some of the most shocking and challenging films of the late 20th and early 21st century, directed a musical. As in, a film where the narrative is broken up by songs and choreographed dancing numbers.
Surprised? Confused? Don’t be. While the film may look like a musical and quack like a musical, it is a singular, independent entity among the ranks of musical productions. The songs aren’t particularly catchy (they are usually dominated by one or two musical themes that are repeated over and over again). The lyrics are choppy and irregular (many times a single phrase is repeated for almost the entire song). And the dancing frequently looks robotic and artificial. But to understand the film, you must first understand that the nearly amateurish music and dancing were designed to look that way. And to understand why, you must first understand the character of Selma Ježková.
Selma is an occupant of two different worlds. In the first, she is a poor single mother who must work grueling shifts at a factory. In time, she will get fired because she almost cannot see her machines anymore. She finds solace by going to the movies with her friend Kathy (whom she nicknames Cvalda) and participating in an amateur production of The Sound of Music. The other world is a land of fantasy. As the film progresses, she delves into fantastic daydreams where the people around her break out into song and dance. Much like the Academy award winning musical Chicago (2002), all of the grand song and dance numbers take place inside the character’s mind. Location and circumstances are irrelevant to Selma. When the urge to escape hits her, the world explodes into song. When she is on a train, a band of hobos stealing a ride becomes an impromptu dance company. When she is toiling away at her soulless job, the machines start to beat in time and the workers begin to jump in frolic to their beat. And finally, on death row, her own footsteps as she makes that final, solemn march to the noose count out the time to a final swan song.
It occurs to me that I have perhaps gotten a little ahead of myself. Maybe I should explain the plot before I give the ending away. But in retrospect it doesn’t really matter. This is a film by Lars von Trier. Would you expect anything else? But perhaps an explanation is in order. After Selma gets fired from her job at the factory for breaking an expensive piece of machinery, she is beseeched by her friend Bill for a loan. She declines, as she saves every penny that she can spare for an operation that will save her son’s eyesight. Desperate for money, Bill steals Selma’s savings. When she confronts him at his house, a struggle breaks out as he pulls a gun on her. In the ensuing chaos, Selma accidentally injures Bill as his wife, Linda, flees the house seeking help. In his final moments, Bill begs Selma to finish him off. Clearly in a state of shock, a terrified Selma complies. After the deed is done, Selma slips into a trance where she imagines Bill’s body coming back to life and dancing a slow dirge with her. He encourages her to run for freedom. After the last note dies off, she complies. She rushes to an Institute for the Blind and spends every last cent on paying for her son’s operation.
She is then picked up by the police and taken to jail. A kangaroo court awaits her as she is mercilessly accused of being a Communist. I’m sorry, did I forget to mention that this film takes place in the Fifties? Well, it does. But you would never guess that from watching the movie. The entire film seems timeless as it is bereft of period clothes or any other indicators of the era. In fact, the only time when we are reminded of the year is when Selma is accused of being a Godless Commie. Does it come off as a bit random? Perhaps. But maybe that was the only way that the Dutch von Trier could think of creating a situation where his character couldn’t escape a conviction within the American court system.
Her fate sealed, she rebukes one last effort from her friends to help her escape her fate. They take the money that she tried to spend on her son’s operation and hire a big city lawyer. The second that she finds out, she fires him and demands a refund. In a stunning scene, she is confronted by her new lawyer who bluntly asks her if she realizes what will happen to her if she fires him. She smiles weakly and responds that she does. And so we find her walking the Green Mile towards her doom. I could tell you how the film’s most powerful moments play out at the end of the film, but that would be tantamount to theft. Let’s just say that you cannot imagine the horror and the power of the film’s closing scenes.
Some may scratch their heads and wonder how such a bizarre film could work. To them, I raise my hand and simply answer, “Björk.” In Dancer in the Dark, Selma is played by Icelandic superstar Björk Guðmundsdóttir. To watch her is to witness a revelation of true, unbridled talent. Never once do we fail to believe in Selma’s character or feel anything but the utmost love and sympathy for her. Björk seems to channel a beaten puppy as she navigates her way through an uncaring society. And yet, her painfully introverted performance explodes in a phantasmagoria of energy and emotion during her musical numbers. Remember how I said that the songs weren’t particularly well written or well composed? I think that von Trier did that on purpose. After all, they are the extensions of a foreigner’s mind. Selma probably doesn’t know how to construct shimmering lyrics or pleasing melodies in her adopted language and culture. Instead, they cut right to the core of what Selma thinks and experiences. And Björk makes them work, transforming each note into a devastating scream of beauty and each lyric into a trembling cry for recognition and acceptance.
Watching her perform, it seems only natural that she would have won so many accolades for her performance, including the Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress. So it is a tragedy that afterward Björk swore never to appear in another film. Apparently, working for one of the most demanding and innovative directors in the world was a taxing and emotionally devastating experience. Don’t mistake that last sentence as a statement born of cynicism or sarcasm. It was a serious observation. It must have been next to impossible to channel so much energy into each shot. And so, we must be eternally grateful that Björk blessed the world with even one performance. I would almost feel greedy asking her to commit to another role…
Critics and audiences must have agreed with me that Dancer in the Dark was one of Lars von Trier’s greatest works. After all, the film won the 2000 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Some might be surprised that I would mention a winner of the Golden Palm on a site designed for under-appreciated films. My answer is simple: yes it won one of the most prestigious awards that a film can receive in the world. But really, how many people know about it? When people talk about Lars von Trier, they tend to think of his earlier work when he was involved with Dogma 95 or his more recent films that have redefined the terms “visceral” and “shocking.” Few have seen, or even heard of this great film. And so I write about it. It deserves not only to be seen, but to be cherished. Is it difficult to watch? Yes. It can be a grueling experience that yanks at the exposed nerve endings of your comfort zone. But I would argue that many great works of art do the same. The original performance of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring caused fights to break out. During an author’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl the audience almost revolted. And let’s not forget that Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin literally compelled its audiences to riot. And so I return to Dancer in the Dark. It is not just a good film. It is not just a great film. It is a transcendent film. It provides one of those rare experiences that shake you to your core.
Just thank God that at least you got a couple of musical numbers out of it.
Here is a clip of the Academy Award nominated song "I've Seen it All."