Directed Viewing: “Dancer in the Dark” and the Grace of Musicals

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.

The Dogme movement we discussed last time was something of an estranging period for von Trier. He found himself more famous as the headliner of a movement than as a film director for a little while, and the whole experiment with The Idiots only further drew a line in the sand between people who found interest in this approach and people who accused him of the worst cinematic atrocities. For a director who ultimately seems interested in making movies more than being involved with the other parts of film culture, I wonder if this didn’t bother von Trier. It certainly seems to have affected his work.

While his Golden Heart trilogy continues, it’s interesting just how stridently he moved away from the Dogme structures in his next movie. In fact, he picked a genre that seems like the natural arch-nemesis of honesty—the musical—and there sowed the seeds for what would become a new leg of his career: a stylized mesh of filming techniques, both low-budget and the height of cinematic artifice, that continue even into his most recent work.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Set in 1964 and in rural Washington, Dancer in the Dark is totally set apart from the rest of von Trier’s filmography geographically and temporally, but the story is immediately of the type that make up the entire middle and modern periods of his career to date. Selma Jezkova (Bjork, in one of her only acting roles) is a Czech immigrant who has moved to the United States with her son Gene, living in a trailer on property owned by a couple, the locla sheriff Bill and his wife Linda (David Morse and Cara Seymour), who have taken in the mother and son as almost extended family. Selma spends her days working in a factory and her nights making things to sell, spending only a scant few hours training for a local musical production of The Sound of Music that seems doomed to never happen. She spends little, even going so far as to deprive her son birthday presents, saying that she sends most of her pay back home to a father.

What nobody knows aside from Selma’s coworker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) is that Selma has a degenerative disease that is slowly rendering her blind. Even now she can barely see, using cheat sheets to pass eye exams and the help of Kathy to navigate her monotonous factory job. Her son has the same problem, and Selma moved to the US with the intent of saving up and paying for an operation when he turns 13. It’s a thankless job that she keeps secret from everyone (including her son), and the only moments of escape that she has are the weekends her and Kathy go to the theater to watch old Hollywood musicals (or rather, Kathy explains what’s going on to Selma), and as Selma retreats more and more into a world of darkness she begins to slip deeper and deeper into daydreams.

The truth of those daydreams invades the movie at the 40 minute point, when suddenly we see the world as Selma ‘sees’ it, as her humdrum factory job turns into a found-noise musical sequence, as her and her coworkers parade around the machines. And that’s when you realize, far too late to escape, that Dancer in the Dark is a musical. It’s a really fantastic musical, too, with music all composed by Bjork with lyrics by von Trier, performed with an immediacy that feels somewhere between old Hollywood spectacle and modern dance, often ferocious in its emotional rawness. Here the casting of Bjork, otherwise baffling, makes sense: she brings an otherworldly grace to the whole affair, a sense of wonder and child-like naivete that dovetails out of her professional persona and into a character that feels like she belongs in a Bjork video.

The combination of Bjork and Catherine Deneuve forms a quiet sort of friendship that seems at odds with the rest of the film.

It’s an interesting shift for the director, but he doesn’t really jump in with both feet. Dancer in the Dark is usually filmed handheld, and is an early example of a movie filmed entirely with digital cameras. It gives it almost the look of his early work or a Dogme film, especially in the ‘real life’ sequences, which have a lazy sensibility to them. But von Trier really steps it up in the musical sequences, a dizzying array of shot choices that emulate classic big 30s musicals even with the more modest scale, and those sequences change in look and staging to be brighter, more color saturated, and far more affected in terms of posing and composition. What interests me is how much the musical shots resemble, then, the entirety of his later films. Antichrist and Melancholia take that heightened world aesthetic into the very core of what they are, living in operatic, dreamlike worlds. It’s fascinating seeing him dip his toe into what would become the style that so endeared him to me on first viewing, even if he didn’t come back to it for another few films.

Eventually Bill and Selma, already close friends, have a moment one night where they reveal their secrets to each other. Selma admits to being almost close to blind, and Bill admits that the money his wife thinks he’s rich off of from an inheritance is already gone, and that he’s about to lose his house. Unable to help each other, they find a sort of camaraderie in their helplessness, until Bill takes an out. One night, he feigns leaving, and stands in the corner of the room to watch where Selma puts her money. The next night, when Selma goes to deposit her day’s wages, she finds it gone. Instantly, she knows who took it, and heads over to the house across the yard to confront Bill.

David Morse is a surprise genius casting as the man in an impossible place that kicks off the plot.

It’s here that everything takes a sharp turn. Bill, unable to admit their poverty to his wife, instead intimates that Selma came onto him, and when she demands the money back acts as though she’s stealing the savings he brought home from the bank. The two fight over the money, and Bill eventually gives in, unable to actually fight Selma, but as a last ditch effort pulls out the gun he owns and threatens to shoot Selma. The two fight over the gun, then, and it accidentally goes off, shooting Bill. As he apologizes to Selma, his wife concludes that she shot him and runs out to get the police, as Bill continues to apologize, saying that he only wanted to take care of his family, and asks Selma to put him out of his misery. When in her blindness she can’t even accurately hit him with the gun, she uses the safety deposit box on his desk to beat him to death, imagining after a sequence where Bill gets up and dances with her, thanking her for helping him and urging her to run.

She takes the money and secretly pays the doctor for the operation Gene needs when he turns 13, before allowing herself to be caught when she shows up to her dance practice and the people who were supposedly her friends turn her in. The trial is a quick and painful affair, as Selma resolutely keeps her plans secret, and refuses to break the promise she made to Bill that she wouldn’t reveal that he had died penniless. The lawyer uses this opportunity to paint her as a delusional Communist, using the story that she was sending money to her father to point out that she was lying about where all her money went, and using witness testimony from Bill’s wife that Selma refuses to fight against. The jury quickly turns around a guilty verdict, and the judge sentences her to death.

Most of the musical sequences utilize the real environments of the movie to create an air of spontaneity.

The entirety of von Trier’s Golden Heart movies has revolved around the suffering taken up by women who were used by the society around them and rather willingly become martyrs, but none of them is more profoundly to type than Selma. In jail, she befriends most of the people she’s around, who all become convinced of her innocence but have no means to change her fate. Even when Kathy eventually discovers what happened, Selma refuses to cooperate, as reopening her case would require using the money for the operation for Gene to pay for a lawyer good enough to free her or get her sentence reduced. Willing to die rather than let her child suffer her fate, she simply allows the inevitable to happen, spending her last days falling deeper and deeper into her daydreams of song and dance. It’s the kind of naive stubbornness that can be infuriating if you aren’t willing to take it on its own terms, and indeed critical opinion seems like it was sharply divided on the film when it came out along the lines of the people who ‘bought it’ and the people who wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

What’s most genius about von Trier’s choices in this movie, though, is how perfectly the plot merges into the genre to make both work better than they would otherwise. The story is rife with implausible coincidence and emotional manipulation so obvious that in another genre it would be insulting, but with the artifice of the musical laid over it it takes on the flavor of grand tragedy, a mythic quality to this suffering that Bjork expresses better through plaintive song than she ever could simply acting in front of a camera. It also puts a lot of actual plot emotion behind a genre that usually suffers in trying to feel genuine, turning a fun musical into a heartbreakingly whimsical look at human suffering. Neither part would work on their own, but together they make a genius sort of magic that can only exist in this particular, oft-neglected genre.

The movie opens with some of the random abstract visuals that would come to mark most of von Trier’s later title work.


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Directed Viewing: “Dancer in the Dark” and the Grace of Musicals

  1. vinnieh says:

    Excellent and very interesting analysis of a movie that splits opinion, I need to watch it to see what I think.

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