By Trey Stancher
Written and directed by the always-controversial Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark was the Danish filmmaker’s foray into accessible cinema. It was accessible because it starred the biggest name to have ever appeared in any of his films, Icelandic musician Björk. As the lead actress’ presence suggests, it’s a musical. This tidbit of information is largely what kept me away from seeing it for as long as I did. It wasn’t until some four years after it was released that I managed to watch it, at the very strong suggestion of a friend of mine. He owned it on VHS and insisted that I would not regret watching it. In an effort to be fair and inclusive (and friendly) I obliged, and I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.
Dancer in the Dark is a musical, and I have always hated musicals as a matter of principle. Even as a child I questioned the validity of people bursting into song in the middle of a street or a restaurant or what have you. The only musical I have ever genuinely liked was Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors, because it had puppets and Steve Martin. Other than that I scoffed then and still scoff at any and all musicals. I mean, I’ve always loved action movies and I’m sure anyone can point out the blatant distortions of reality in any of them, but at least they try, or at least make an effort (even if it’s small and half-assed) to convince you that it’s real. After all, CGI is a filmmaker’s way of trying to make it more “real”. With musicals, there is an inherent submission to pomp and circumstance wherein you just accept the “Hollywood magic” of it all and try to enjoy the flick.
For his musical, von Trier incorporated into the film the insanity that lies at the core of all musicals. The only answer (in a real world scenario) as to why a man would start singing in the rain is because he’s insane. So, an audience has to suspend their disbelief for two hours to properly enjoy a musical. Otherwise, they just sound like that asshole who complains about how impossible it is that a 60-year old Sylvester Stallone can do any of the shit he does in either Expendables movies.
Lars von Trier isn’t interested in suspending your disbelief. He cares not for your cinematic expectations or for your sentimental proclivities. As anyone who has seen his 2009 film Antichrist can attest, von Trier has no problem playing with your intellectual senses. What struck me first about Dancer in the Dark was how determined and pointed it was. Some films purposefully don’t have a plot, and this film does a certain kind of dance in which you’re not sure if anything at all is happening.
Selma (played by Björk) is a Czech immigrant in 1964 Washington state. She lives with her young son in the back house owned by local sheriff Bill Houston (played by David Morse) and his wife. It’s von Trier’s casting of Morse that sets up the first half of the film as a somewhat light-hearted romp as Morse was fresh off his sentimental and all-around good guy turn in Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. Bill Houston is a nice man with all of the good will in the world, and Selma is the poor hard-working immigrant whom he gives shelter. However, Selma holds a secret that she is scared to let anyone know about—she’s going blind.
Selma is afraid that if anyone finds out about her genetically-degenerative condition she might get fired from her factory job. She copes with her condition (and her growing hopelessness) by daydreaming everywhere she goes. All of the musical numbers in this film are her imagining them. These people are bursting into song and dance because it’s all in her head. It’s the insanity of musicals happening in real life being explained by the concept of being “out of your mind”.
One fateful night when Bill visits Selma in the back house she tells him what’s happening to her, and informs him that her only motivation thus far is saving up enough money so that she can afford an operation that will save her son from a similar fate. It turns out that Bill hold his own secret, that of not being able to live up to the reputation he touts in the presence of his wife. He wants her to be that golden housewife who can purchase anything she wants because her loving husband brings home the bread for her to do so. He’s a weak man, with a weak outlook on life, and he takes advantage of her growing blindness to steal her savings, all so that he can continue living a life cushioned from hard reality. When Selma confronts him about it (in the nicest, most timid way possible) Bill becomes enraged and selfish, and over the course of a short argument he begs Selma to kill him. Selma, being the innocent immigrant in a strange and zealous land, acquiesces by firing the gun he shoves in her hand; all while sobbing and not completely understanding just what the hell is going on.
This is where the film takes a very dark turn, as Selma ends up facing trial for murder in the first degree. It’s during this second phase of the film that von Trier aims to completely rip your heart from your chest as you watch everything deteriorate for the forthright Selma, who never wanted to do anything wrong and only ever wanted to save her son from a pitiful fate. The trial unearths all sorts of revelations that serve only to expose to the courtroom that Selma is “insane”. She admits to lying about being related to a famous dancer in Europe. Her admissions about imagining musicals do nothing but justify the prosecution’s motives, and she is eventually sentenced to die by hanging.
Lars von Trier has always loved to make thematic sequels to his films, and Dancer in the Dark represents the third installment in what he calls his “Golden Heart Trilogy,” in which naive and ultimately-doomed heroines maintain their true and “golden hearts” even in the face of mounting tragedy. It would take me too long to precisely paint why I love this film; so much so that the best way to convince someone of its beauty is to just show it to them. That’s how I first saw it and I’m forever-gratfeul. It’s a hard movie to watch because its second half is nothing like its first half. You walk away from this film with emotions altogether wholly different from those you had when you started it.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s the golden standard of musicals and it’s one of the few films that I would recommend to audiences of all ages, genders, or religious creeds. Because it’s real, and it makes you feel real. That’s the highest echelon of filmmaking. That’s everything you could ever ask for.