Film review: Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Spoilers occur about the ending, this review is intended for those who have already watched the film.
My review is a contribution to the LAMB Lars von Trier director's chair event July 16th. I will post several more Lars von Trier film reviews during July, as he's one of my favourite contemporary directors.
It’s the middle of the 1960s in a small industrial city in the state of Washington. 30-year-old Selma (Björk) has emigrated here from Czechoslovakia with her son Gene, who is now twelve. Selma works in a factory making kitchen equipment, but she also does as much work elsewhere as she can to save money for her son’s future. She still finds time to rehearse a musical with the local amateur dramatic group. Selma’s best friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), is a constant source of support and encouragement.
Selma also socializes with Bill (David Morse) and Linda (Cara Seymour), her neighbours in the trailer park where she lives, whom assist her by watching Gene while he is alone. Bill has lost his job, but he is keeping this from his wife. Now he wants to borrow money from Selma. Finally, there is Jeff (Peter Stormare), another co-worker who is infatuated with Selma and does anything he can to help her out.
An international co-production, Dancer in the Dark is Lars von Trier’s third Goldheart film after Breaking the waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998). Many of Lars von Triers films star female lead characters. With the Gold heart trilogy, Lars von Trier has been criticized for a conservative and oppressive view of women.
Sound and music are very important to Selma, because her eyesight is deteriorating. The theme of blindness in Dancer in the Dark fits with the thematic notion of blind justice, which Selma falls victim to. In fact much of the aesthetic of the film, a summer twilight atmosphere, corresponds to her gradual descent into blindness, the loss of sight we can all empathize with.
Selma’s life is a paradox, on the one hand she is a humble, sad, and tragic character. On the other hand, she finds fulfillment and joy through dancing. This paradox can be explained in that her physical emancipation and pleasure stem from day dreams and not reality. As filmforager writes in her review: "von Trier creates a strange melodrama that also acts as something of a commentary on the supposed "American Dream" advertised by splashy old-timey musicals. Only in her fantasies can Selma achieve the kind of sugar-coated joy she longs to experience with her friends and family. She can't even act it out onstage, as her worsening eyesight forces her to drop out of the starring role in a local production of The Sound of Music."
Surrender to the void makes an interesting comparison: "In many respects, von Trier is looking at America in a dream in the same way Stanley Kubrick used London as New York City for Eyes Wide Shut. Really, it's America in a dreamier tone in reference to the Hollywood musicals that Selma loved. Really, von Trier isn't trying to knock America but he knows that he doesn't have to go there to know what's going on since he's pretty much afraid to go on a plane and doesn't like to travel very much."
"If I wanted a boyfriend it would be you, that’s for sure. But I don’t want one. Not now." Selma confesses to Jeff (Peter Stormare), who pursues her. But why does she not want him? Doesn’t she need love and support in her vulnerable situation? And how did she manage to escape communism and reach the US? Couldn’t the eye doctor be persuaded to perform the operation on Gene on credit given the circumstances?
Selma becomes a helpless woman in unfortunate circumstances. However, Selma is not completely passive, she insists on not letting the court case be reopened, so her hanging has the characteristic of a suicide, a sacrificial suicide, which she feels is necessary to save her son.
As Bess did in Breaking the Waves, Selma brings her character and her unselfish agenda to its logical end, sacrificing herself for love, and the person she loves the most. Selma has a golden heart, it’s no accident that the three films are called the gold heart trilogy.
The mother-son relationship is ambiguous. Selma’s priority is for Gene to have his eye operation, and her survival comes second. Or has Selma made the wrong decision, is it more important for Gene to have a mother, with the end result for them both to be blind together?
We actually don’t know if Kathy’s (Catherine Deneuve) declarations are true in the final moments, that Gene has been cured and will have grandchildren.
A few American critics were unhappy with the implicit finger-waving at the US judicial system and death penalty, which they found to be too calculated and manipulating, considering von Trier has never been to the US himself.
The camera techniques:
The film was praised by critics for its stylistic innovations. The rules during the making were only fixed camera shots during the musical numbers, and only handheld camera during the rest of the film. Melancholic colours in the reality moments, happiness and radiant colouring for the musical interludes.
The musical sequences were filmed simultaneously with over 100 digital cameras so that multiple angles of the performance could be captured and cut together later, thus shortening the filming schedule.
The camera techniques were complicated to utilize, but gave Björk a great deal of freedom for the song and dance scenes. She could perform them for uninterrupted periods of time, which were covered from all imaginable camera angles.
It is not a true Dogme 95 film, however, because the Dogme rules stipulate that violence, non-diegetic music, and period pieces are not permitted.
Interview with Lars von Trier about Dancer in the Dark:
Interviewer: How come you ended up making another trilogy? First you had the trilogy about Europe, with The Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa, and now the Goldheart Trilogy
Lars von Trier: “Its probably the fault of you Swedes! Bergman and his trilogies. But it’s fairly practical as well. It’s like being in a department store and buying three pairs of socks in one pack. That’s how films are sold these days, in packs of three. If a distributor wants one good film, he has to buy two bad ones as well”
Lars von Trier: It makes it easier for the critics as well. They can always devote a column to comparing the three films in the trilogy. It’s not unusual in other art forms, after all - painting, for instance, where artists go through different phases and styles in their art, or within music.
Lars von Trier: “It’s the idea of allowing yourself to repeat yourself, like Monet when he painted the same bloody thing all the time. He kept on and in the end they accepted him. He kept going, refining his art. Using the word trilogy indicates that there’s a theme that’s shown in a new light in each film. Or that you’re trying to expand on an idea. It turns into an excuse for concentrating on the same thing once more. Hopefully it won’t be like this for the rest of my life”
Lars von Trier: “someone who sacrifices himself or herself is at least giving their existence some sort of meaning – if you can see a meaning in doing something for others, for an idea, a belief. The characters in these films are struggling to bring meaning to their time on earth. It must feel easier to die if you’re doing it for something you believe in.”
Lars von Trier: "But at the moment I’m at a point in my life where I’ve had enough of elegant camera movements. But I’d always wanted to make a musical. If I was going to do it the classical way, I’d have used a camera crane and a dolly and sophisticated camera choreography, and song-and-dance numbers that had to be recorded in a studio. But that’s what I didn’t want to do. That why it felt important to film those scenes in static shots. It underplays the sense of musical. That’s how I see it, anyway”
Lars von Trier: “Dancer in the Dark wasn’t a Dogme film, so I didn’t feel compelled to follow any fixed rules. But the intentions was always to give an impression of live performance”
Lars von Trier: “I wanted to be able to smother myself in close-ups of the people in the musical numbers. They’re Selma’s fantasies, after all, and she’s populating them with the people around her. And they are themselves in these musical scenes; they act in accordance with their roles in the realistic part of the film. That’s why I wanted to be able to show them in greater close-up – but these shots, of necessity, were far too short”
Lars von Trier: “The musical number on the train was more planned out from the start. And that was also something of a mistake, because that wasn’t the point of all those hundred cameras. Now you can see quite clearly that a large number of shots were consciously composed. Coincidence and chance aren’t as important here. The advantage of the hundred cameras in the train scene is that we were able to film it in just two days. If we’d used traditional methods it would have taken us a month to complete. So the system never worked as well as it should have. Maybe we should have had a thousand cameras. That would have been possible. Cameras aren’t particularly expensive, and they’re getting smaller and smaller and easier to hide around the set. We hid ours or, in certain cases, edited out the ones that ended up in shot.”
Lars von Trier: “Because the songs are born in Selma’s head, and Selma is a humanist more than anything else. She values things that people generally don’t see any value in any more: Noises and human frailty. And this is all turned into music and dance – by thought”
Lars von Trier: “One of the first preconditions for the film was Björk herself. And she was going to write music that would fit the idea of the film; in other words, music that would express both Selma’s humanity and the inhumanity of the musical genre. I think she captured that brilliantly. The idea was to express something similar in the dancing.“
Lars von Trier: "One of the few videos that had impressed me before and that I thought was both attractive and challenging in terms of its choreography was the video for Madonna’s Vogue. Vincent Paterson was the choreographer on that. He’s also choreographed a couple of Michael Jackson videos. So I thought if I was going to have one of those video people, it ought to be him”
Lars von Trier: “I wanted to create a tighter atmosphere and arouse emotions that the musical genre usually holds at a distance. The classic musical is a sort of descendant of operetta. Opera, on the other hand, allows itself an entirely different register and range as far as emotions are concerned, and it was that sort of intensity I was after”
Interviewer: Björk’s performance is remarkable, and admirable considering her lack of previous acting experience.
Lars von Trier: “Yes, her portrayal was practically created in spite of herself. She acted out of pure emotion, and that was naturally very painful for her. And for a lot of the rest of us as well…It’s interesting, because I had never tried to work in that way with an actor before.”
Extracts from The Selma Manifesto – written by Lars von Trier:
“The joy that she (Selma) is able to conjure up from within is her spark of happiness. (…) And she can see all the details…every single one. Strange things that only she can see or hear. She’s a genuine watcher…with a photographic memory. And it’s this double-sided nature that makes her an artist: her love and enthusiasm for the artificial world of music, song, and dance, and her keen fascination for the real world…her humanity. Her art consists of the musical interludes that she takes refuge in when she needs to (…) This isn’t pure escapism!…It’s much, much more…it’s art! It stems from a genuine inner need to play with life and incorporate it into her own private world. A situation might be incredibly painful, but it can always provide the starting point for even a tiny manifestation of Selma’s art. It can be incorporated into the little world that she can control. (…) What she sees at the cinema is flawless…painless…in other words, entirely at odds with real life…(…) they’re Selma’s naïve way of telling a story through a song (…) starts to play with it and forgets everything. The songs are Selma’s dialogue with herself…even if sometimes they are put in other character’s mouths, who express her words, her doubts, fears, joys, and so on. They are naïve songs, with all the well-used words from popular music…but often things don’t work for her…and certain deeper truths seep out…When that happens Selma is quick to turn it all into a game again…playing with words…or fragments of words…like a child!…sheer astonishment at letting sounds come out of her mouth!
Won the prestigious Palme d'Or, and Björk picked up the Best Female Performance Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
The song I've Seen It All (with Björk and Radiohead's Thom Yorke), was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song.
Washington State during the mid 1960s was meticulously recreated in Sweden. Some of the cast members in smaller parts are Swedish actors who are dubbed by actors with American accents.
The conflict on set between Björk and Lars von Trier caused a lot of attention in the media, not least at the premiere in Cannes, but didn’t overshadow the actual film. With her eccentric rock star attitude Björk made things complicated, her method acting of completely immersing herself in the role meant that she afterwards claimed it was her last acting job.
The soundtrack for the film, released as the album Selmasongs, was written mainly by Björk, but a number of songs featured contributions from Mark Bell and the lyrics were by von Trier and Sjón. Three songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music were also used in the film.
Lars von Trier was not familiar with Björk's music, but had seen a few of her music videos, and was fascinated by her ability to pull faces.
The opening scene is a variation of how it might feel to lose your sight.
As a countermeasure for wearing strong glasses extensively, Björk wore contacts of the opposite level to neutralize her vision during those scenes.
Writer-director Lars von Trier's first draft screenplay was called "Taps" and featured tap dancing in every scene. Choreographer Vincent Paterson convinced von Trier that it would be far too difficult, if not impossible, to teach something as "technical" as tap dancing to Björk and the other cast members within a reasonable period of time. von Trier rewrote the screenplay so that the songs would be more in the style of "traditional" Hollywood musicals, but retained some of the tap-dancing motif with the character of Oldrich Novy
Lars von Trier originally cast himself as the angry man who chastises Selma and Kathy in the movie theater. However, due to the contentious on-set relationship between himself and Björk, he feared that he might end up losing control and overacting, so the part went to Michael Flessas instead.
A scintillating performance by Icelandic singer Björk, considering she had so little acting experience, it is a remarkable feat. The film is an experimental alternative to the sunshiny musicals of bygone years, Lars von Trier has created a mix of fantasy and gritty realism that he believes appeals more to the audience's emotions than intellect.
The story has human emotion in its rawest form, and deals with themes of imagination and naïvety, with a confounding climax. The movie seems to be that rarity that can engage both the arthouse crowd and mainstream audiences. My only complaint is I find the film to be slightly overlong.
My rating 7.8
Lars von Trier quotes:
Trier on von Trier / Stig Bjorkman (2005)
What do you guys think? Was my review useful? Have you watched Dancer in the Dark (2000)? Share your opinions in the comments below
Next, I will look at Dogville (2003) starring Nicole Kidman