Selma Jezkova (Björk) is a Czech immigrant living in America with her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). She is obsessed with Hollywood musicals, works at a metal-pressing factory with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and cheats at eye tests to try and hide the fact she is going blind. Living next door to her are her supposedly wealthy landlords, Bill (David Morse) and Linda Huston (Cara Seymor). When Bill lets Selma in on a secret of his she returns the confidence by telling him she is blind, a revelation that leads to tragedy and which causes her to retreat further into musical fantasy as events quickly escalate beyond her control.
The Critics Said
“[Dancer in the Dark] smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture. And since Bjork has announced that she will never make another movie, it is a good thing she sings.” – Roger Ebert, 2000
“For its sheer effrontery, for its browbeating melodrama and pseudo-tragedy, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark has to be the most sensationally silly film of the year – as well as the most shallow and crudely manipulative” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 2000
Country: Denmark, Argentina, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, USA
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
Runtime: 140 minutes
A boxset of four of Lars von Trier’s films, titled ‘Shock & Awe,’ collects some of his most recent works – Nymphomaniac (2013), Melancholia (2011) and Antichrist (2009) – along with his earlier Breaking the Waves (1996). The title, accompanied by a cover image of the director with his mouth taped shut, appropriately summarises the latest period of von Trier’s career, the last decade or so that has been most notable for the provocativeness of his subject matter and the inflammatory incidents in which the provocateur himself has been involved. Prior to all of the nymphomania, talking foxes, genital mutilation and ill-advised remarks about Nazism, however, von Trier experimented with a genre usually known for its wholesomeness – the musical – adding his own characteristically morbid flourishes.
In the starring role as Selma Jezkova, a Czech immigrant in America, is the Icelandic singer Björk. Selma is obsessed with Hollywood musicals and is part of an amateur dramatics group rehearsing for a performance of The Sound of Music. However, she is also gradually losing her sight, something she is trying to keep secret from her friends and co-workers so that she doesn’t lose her job. For a musical, the music takes its time to appear; the first song isn’t sung until well over half an hour into the film. Its arrival is a surprise, an energetic interlude in a film that up to that point proceeds with a naturalistic languor. The songs themselves are not your usual musical festivities but examples of the percussive, wailing electronica that Björk has becomes synonymous with. These songs break up Selma’s tragic story and represent the character retreating from a progressively hostile world to a place where everything turns out alright in the end, a place filled with singing, dancing and colour.
Dancing in the Dark is a turning point of sorts in Lars von Trier’s career, as the strictures of the Dogme movement give way to the confrontational style of the director’s later work. Here, his restless handheld camera and the understated lighting provides a grainy home-video feel, a distinct reminder of the austere constraints that von Trier and fellow Thomas Vinterberg imposed upon themselves and their work through their manifesto. Yet in subverting the conventions of the Hollywood musical, by turning it into this grubby feel-bad melodrama, von Trier demonstrates the transgressiveness that defines his later work while breaking the rules of the Dogme manifesto by introducing more elaborate technical and narrative processes to fully tell the story. The most notable of these was the deployment of 100 cameras to provide a ‘live’ feel to some of the more choreographed scenes in the film, a technique that formed the basis of a loose ‘making of’ documentary, Von Trier’s 100 Eyes (2000).
The production of Dancer in the Dark was reportedly marred by a fractious relationship between director and leading lady, rumours of bust-ups, suspensions and claims of sexism against von Trier generating a sensationalism that has now become somewhat the norm for one of his releases. As a result it was the first and last time Björk took a leading role in a film. Despite the difficulties of the shoot (or perhaps because of them), hers is a phenomenal performance, one of great emotional sincerity and one that allows us at times to disregard her background. The musical interludes, however, break this spell, the songs so idiosyncratic of Björk’s music that it is difficult to regard her as Selma as she sings them. At these points Björk the actress and Björk the musician are two very different individuals.
The film has attracted criticism in the past for the manipulativeness of its story but its sins in this respect are no more egregious than more recent melodramas, those like Olivier Nakache’s and Eric Toledano’s Intouchables (2011), that with calculated precision pick at emotional strings that have already been thoroughly dissected and catalogued over the course of cinema’s history. For a director so conscious of the need to transgress, one who resists the pressure to conform with such enthusiasm that he is willing to trivialise Nazism – joking or not – Dancer in the Dark is at least a departure from his usual mode of provocation for its own sake. It might manipulate us, but we’ve come to expect that from Lars von Trier.
More by Lars von Trier
Melancholia (2011) – Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-earth drama opens with a striking sequence of a planet colliding with our own. But the film explores so many things beyond the end of the world: our own personal frailties, as humans and together as the human race and what it truly takes to to defend against adversity, both those perceived and those that are imperceptible. Somewhat overshadowed by some ill-judged remarks by the director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the film is nevertheless a philosophically rich exploration of the meaning of life.