Wednesday, 25 January 2017

I've Just Seen: Dancer in the Dark (2000)

 Director: Lars von Trier

I've been on a bit of musical kick of late, sparked by La La Land. I've watched The Music Man, and rewatched Oklahoma and Kiss Me Kate, all standard (and fun) Hollywood musicals. Lars von Trier's musical is as different from these musicals as you can get. Deliberately so. Not in a way that condemns such fare, but instead looks at the impact a love of musicals can have on someone.

Bjork plays Selma, a musical-loving, am-dram singer who has migrated from Czechoslovakia with her son to America (nominally in the 1960s). She works in a factory and lives in a trailer on a wealthier couple's property. And Selma is going blind from a genetic condition. She keeps this, and her accumulation of money, from her friends, except from her landlord, Bill. This secrecy will prove to be a mistake, leading to a series of increasingly horrible events for Selma. Between these events, once Selma has gone completely blind, she begins to see and hear songs and dances in her head, like the musicals she loves so much.

This is a difficult film to like, but one that I found easy to admire. The documentary style of the "real life" parts - hand-held camera, natural lighting - are nicely contrasted with the musicals sequences. These are shot with multiple static cameras, and Bjork's voice gives them an appropriate dreamy quality. Bjork is great as Selma, not just in the singing, but also giving Selma a child-like quality and naivety. The rest of the cast is good too, especially the always wonderful Catherine Deneuve, a casting choice that recalls Jacque Demy's musicals.

My feelings about the plot changed as the film went on. So many hardships are laid upon Selma, some through her own stubbornness, that I occasionally thought von Trier had pushed the darkness of the story too far. Her self-sacrifice could have been avoided by trusting her friends. Yet by the end I understood Selma's actions, that she wasn't just reacting to the things that happened to her, but shaping them as well.

While many people think musicals all ended happily, this is certainly not always the case: Moulin Rouge has a romantically tragic ending, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is gently unromantic. Dancer in the Dark, however, goes beyond even Sweeney Todd in its brutality. Here is it emotional brutality, and its suddenness jars with you.

It is hard to say whether a non-musical loving would enjoy this more than a musical-loving one. And many film critics, who are musical-lovers, hated this film. In Australia, Margaret Pomeranz gave it five stars, while David Stratton awarded it none. Whatever it makes you feel, it is at least bound to make you feel something.


  1. Agreed. This isn't a film that I want to watch again any time soon, but it's one that has stayed with me.

    I generally don't like von Trier in general, but this is one that demonstrates what he is capable of doing, and it's impressive in that respect.

    1. He is hard to like - he puts his characters through hell (and sometimes his audience) - but he is such an accomplished filmmaker, he is hard to ignore.