“Dancer in the Dark” at 20: A haunting swan song that’s complicated to love

Dancer in the Dark Bjork in Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark."

Despite on-set conflict, Lars von Trier’s collaboration with Björk is still emotionally devastating and superb two decades later.

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On March 25, 2001, Björk walked onto the Oscar red carpet and into fashion history. Decked out in a swan dress designed by her friend Marjan Pejoski, with a matching egg purse, her outfit was as iconoclastic as the Icelandic singer. She attended the Academy Awards to perform her nominated song “I’ve Seen it All,” from her 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier, another Scandinavian outsider from the Hollywood mainstream. 

Prior to Dancer in the Dark, he was best known for his involvement with Dogme 95, a film movement that eschewed normal filmmaking conventions by utilizing only hand-held cameras, diegetic sound, filming only on location, along with seven other restrictions. His abrasive scripts and experimental style made him loved and loathed alike by cinephiles, but generally unknown in the mainstream. Ultimately, “I’ve Seen it All” lost to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” from Wonder Boys, but Björk’s swan dress and Dancer in the Dark have remained in the cultural memory ever since. 

Set in Washington state in 1964, Dancer in the Dark is the tragedy of Selma Jezkova (Björk), a Czechoslovakian immigrant working in a factory. Selma suffers from a degenerative eye condition that will eventually leave her blind. She hides her condition from everyone but her close friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), who Selma calls Cvalda. Selma saves every extra penny she has to afford an operation for her son Gene, so he won’t suffer the same fate, but also refuses to tell Gene or anyone else, claiming she is sending the money to her father in Czechoslovakia. 

She takes on extra shifts at the factory and makes handmade cards to sell, avoiding most other interactions and rebuffs the advances of Jeff (Peter Stormare), a man hopelessly infatuated with Selma. The only escape Selma allows herself is into the world of musicals, both on-screen and by performing in a local production of The Sound of Music. She daydreams constantly, turning her life into a musical production in her head – and onscreen.

All of Selma’s hard work is undone by her friendship with her landlord, Bill (David Morse), the town sheriff who came into a small fortune through inheritance. Bill confides in Selma that he has burned through his inheritance due to his wife’s (Cara Seymour) spending, but he is too cowardly to tell his wife the truth. Selma in turn confides that she is going blind and saving money for her son’s operation. Bill steals Selma’s savings, and when Selma confronts him, an ensuing scuffle results in Bill’s inadvertent death. Selma is convicted of murder, in part because she refuses to disclose Bill’s secret, and is sentenced to death. 

From the opening visuals, we see that von Trier is moving away from the self-imposed restrictions of Dogme 95 he used in The Idiots. A series of abstract images come into view from a beige background, while the overture swells. While Dancer in the Dark is a musical (in its own way at least), it feels more like an opera: the overture has a Wagnerian feel, opening with a drone that is sustained as the melody comes in, reminiscent of the opening to Das Rheingold. Even as the brass swells towards the end, with a sound that glimmers with hope, it then fades into nothingness, presaging that this film won’t have a happy ending. As the colors come in and out of focus to the music, we are given a visual metaphor for Selma’s declining vision.

The film’s plot is similarly operatic, a tragedy that the audience can see coming from miles away, the characters helplessly moved along by fate towards their demise. Von Trier sets up domino after domino, and then knocks them over as they cascade to the film’s finale. We see Selma warned to not use two plates on the machine, and then she does. We see her casually mention that sharing is good in relation to communism, and she is set up as a communist at her trial. Almost every detail presented early in the film is referenced later. This payoff further drives home the feeling that Selma is fated to death. It’s as brutally effective as it is brutally depressing. 

While von Trier is less interested in hewing to Dogme’s demands, he does keep the use of handheld cameras and minimal lighting. Odd cuts, angles, and the shaky camera lend the feeling that we are voyeurs into Selma’s life. This, paired with the oft-presentational Björk in the lead role, draws sharp attention to how much artifice we expect in films, even if they aim for a more naturalistic style. Björk’s amateur acting method at first seems disorienting, but as the viewer is brought into the film, her performance draws the audience into Selma’s emotional life. It’s emotionally wrenching stuff. I remember clearly the pathos I felt the first time I watched Dancer in the Dark almost 20 years ago, and I still experience that reaction today. 

It’s impressive, then, that the musical numbers, which are distinctly non-naturalistic, also meld seamlessly with the rest of the movie. Even though having a musical number breaks the Dogme 95 rule of only using diegetic music, each song is prompted by a sound in the scene, giving each musical number a diegetic starting point. “Cvalda” starts with the banging of machines, “Scatterheart” by a record, and “I’ve Seen It All” by the rhythmic sounds of a train. The cinematography changes are subtle: the camera is given a fixed location and the colors are brightened. But even as the actor’s jump into dancing, the camera is still bound by the filming location. Rather than a front on view, the camera seems to be trying to find a place to see the action. In “Cvalda,” the view is blocked by machinery, and Dutch angles are used in “I’ve Seen it All” to fit a train in view rather than a wide shot. Even in her escapist fantasies, Selma is still trapped by her circumstances, whether she wants to face them or not. A chorus line dances joyfully in the background, while her world crumbles around her. 

While Björk is wonderful throughout, she shines most in the musical numbers. She screams, yelps, and coos through each song. Again, going back to the operatic feeling of Dancer, Björk is less interested in a standard music delivery common to most musicals, with each song feeling more akin to an aria than a show tune. It’s really a shame that there aren’t more songs, and it takes about 40 minutes before we get to the first number.

Despite acting opposite veterans like Deneuve and Stormare, Björk’s performance seems better suited to the cinematography. While Deneuve and Stormare bring their usual skills, they are overshadowed by Björk’s presence on screen. Bjork’s focus on emotion over method gels better with such a melodramatic script. The dialogue is often awkward and littered with pauses and poor timing. Normally, this would be anathema to good filmmaking, but with von Trier’s DIY aesthetic and Björk’s naturalistic performance, it works. It’s hard to imagine that the script would be effective without an emotive performance from the lead. The basic plot and Selma’s character is rather unbelievable: the chain of events is too ridiculous and her unwillingness to disclose the truth of her situation even during her trial is incredulous. This, however, assumes that Dancer in the Dark needs to tell a believable story. 

Dancer in the Dark critiques the relentless optimism of mid-century movie musicals, but it also puts the American cultural narrative under the microscope. Selma is the type of character that should embody the American ideal: an immigrant who comes here through legal means, works hard, and puts her family first. She works to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, and doesn’t complain. In the end, all she gets for following the script set out for immigrants in the US, she is vilified and ultimately killed. 

Selma is also a continuation of von Trier’s obsession with the suffering of women, and the way their pain is caused or minimized by men. In 1988, von Trier adapted the Greek myth of Medea for Danish TV. In that story, Medea, spurned by a man, in turn hangs her own children. Dancer in the Dark reverses the narrative: Selma, betrayed by a man, is hung so her child may be healed. In his later works Antichrist and Melancholia, the suffering of the female main characters is often trivialized by the men in the story, similar to how Bill is only able to see Selma in relation to his own troubles rather than another person suffering. 

Generally, Von Trier’s work is obtuse and defies easy interpretation, but his relationship to the women in his movies is perhaps the most perplexing. On one hand, you could argue that his dissection of the way women’s pain is ignored by men is a poignant critique of patriarchy. On the other, there is an almost misogynistic obsession to show women suffer on screen. 

What hinders  Dancer in the Dark from being a shining spot in both artists œuvres is the legacy surrounding its production. When the movie came out, there were outlandish tales of clashes between Björk and von Trier, the wildest being that Björk ripped up and ate parts of a blouse to halt production. Björk denies the incident, while Deneuve insisted it occurred. While these could be chalked up to two strong personalities clashing, in 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Björk came forward with allegations she was sexually harassed by von Trier during the filming. Björk recounted being hugged too long and nonconsensually by von Trier, and that he even attempted to enter her room. Von Trier has denied the more serious allegations, but admits to hugging her after takes, which he felt was appropriate after emotional scenes. 

Which leaves audiences with the question: Should we continue to watch Dancer in the Dark after these allegations come to light? To write off the film wholesale due to von Trier’s auteur status is to give him too much credit. All films are the result of collaboration between hundreds of people: directors, actors, writers, set designers. Dancer in the Dark, especially, feels like the true creation of Björk and von Trier working in tandem. It wouldn’t be the film it is without Björk’s music, and as such, it’s hard to say that it should be swept in the dustbin due to von Trier’s actions. Like Selma’s dilemma, there’s no easy or obvious solution. 

As a piece of art, however, Dancer in the Dark is the product of von Trier’s filmmaking and Björk’s songwriting, and what we find is both creators at a crossroads. Von Trier is moving away from an obsession with realism, into more artificial genres. This presages his later works like Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia. However, he still incorporates the style and direction of prior films like The Idiots

Likewise, writing the music for Dancer in the Dark (released as an album under the name Selmasongs), Björk tapped into her solo work in the 1990’s, but we also see the seeds of the sounds she’ll explore in her 2000s albums. “Cvalda’s” explosive sounds echo back to Post’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” yet the use of unorthodox sounds lay the groundwork for Volta. “Scatterheart’s” delicate opening would fit perfectly in Vespertine, but the vocal range sounds like “Jóga” from Homogenic

For von Trier and Björk, Dancer in the Dark simultaneously closes and begins a new era in their artistic output. While both artists would reach higher heights in their careers, Dancer is a superb mid-career victory for both. 

Dancer in the Dark Trailer:

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