Lars Von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark is one of two halves, both in execution and vision, which ultimately overlap and merge as the film progresses. The “musical”, starring Icelandic singer – songwriter Bjork and iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve, follows a poor, working class mother named Selma (Bjork) who often day dreams and escapes the harsh realities of her life by imagining she is in a musical, her big passion in life other than her son. This dreaming is exacerbated and made all the more vivid by the fact she is losing her sight due to a degenerative disease. When Selma discovers that the disease is hereditary and her son will also fall victim to the illness we follow her on a journey to try and cure him at all costs despite the cruel interference of others and the risk of death.
I say the film is one of two halves due to the clash between the upsetting reality of the film’s action offset by the extravagant musical numbers that the piece contains. Often when a serious event is about occur, has happened or as in the first number ‘Cvalda’ when Selma is assigned to the boredom of factory work, we are suddenly transported from this reality in to a musical world. Similarly, this divide is somewhat present in Von Trier’s creative vision. A member and co-founder of the Dogme 95 collective, a movement towards filmmaking purity without gimmick or effects, we see Von Trier seemingly implement the rules or ‘Vow of Chastity’ (Von Trier and Vinterberg, 1995: 87) that the Dogme 95 manifesto lays out very clearly during the spoken scenes of the film, such as no ‘special lighting’, keeping the camera ‘hand-held’ and produced music and sounds only occurring ‘where the scene is being shot’ (Von Trier and Vinterberg, 1995: 88) yet generally when it turns to the musical numbers of the film he often manipulates or breaks these rules as well as ultimately, in one sense, breaking vow 8: ‘genre movies are not acceptable’ (Von Trier and Vinterberg, 1995: 88).
In relation to these ideas, this simultaneous clash and merge can be seen very clearly with the number ‘I’ve Seen It All’. We see Selma and her co-worker Jeff (Peter Stormare) walking along a train track after work, with Jeff obviously trying to form a romantic connection with Selma, something she considers an awkward subject. We are then transported from a shaky hand-held camera shot with low exposure daylight into a bright, colourful musical number set with sweeping cameras and an ensemble of dancers. The soundtrack too contains strings and boasts an orchestral sound however the song starts and is unpinned by the rhythm and chugging of a passing train. Here we can see this absurd clash between two styles, a realty and fiction as well as use and break of Dogme 95 but ultimately the merging of these styles too; the ultimate merge of both clashes particularly obvious when Selma sings acapella at the noose at the film’s end without escaping into the “musical state”. Factoring in also that there are only 7 musical numbers in the 140-minute film, this makes us consider, then, if the film is truly a member of the musical genre. Is it a love letter or is it simply a movie with moments of musical cynicism? What is the film’s reality?
Von Trier, L and Vinterberg, T. (1995) ‘Dogme 95: The Vow of Chastity’ in Technology and Culture, the Film Reader. Utterson, A (ed). Pgs 87-88. Abingdon: Routledge.