Dancer in the Dark is largely about movies, in particular, about those movies in which people sing and dance their troubles away. Even this self-reflexivity situates the film in the long tradition of musicals about musicals. In sharp contrast to the traditional musical comedy, though, where narrative problems are resolved through the medium of song, here the resolution does not outlast the song.
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Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) is a strange hybrid of genres. On the one hand, it is a cinéma-vérité style film in the Dogme 95 tradition that recounts the inexorable demise of a young woman whose miserable condition goes from bad to worse over the course of the film, culminating in her execution by hanging in the movie’s brutal closing shots. On the other hand, throughout the film, characters launch into ethereal song-and-dance routines in which they turn pirouettes or tap dance their troubles away in beautifully choreographed musical numbers. These numbers are shot in a style completely different from the one that von Trier uses for the main narrative segments. Saturated with color, they splice together shots filmed simultaneously from as many as 100 different camera angles. The result is a series of fast-paced montage sequences that cinematically replicate the exuberance of the dance performances and the hypnotic rhythm of the songs. These energetic and entrancing musical numbers draw the spectator, along with the main character, outside of the dreary film narrative and into a fantasy world where exhausted factory workers are transformed into jitterbugging acrobats, stone-hearted prison guards become kind and caring custodians of the disenfranchised, prison doors magically open, and the dead return miraculously to life. This article examines the disjunction between these fantastic musical moments and the harsh reality depicted in the film narrative. Situating von Trier’s thought-provoking film by turns within and in opposition to the musical film genre, it argues that the movie performs what amounts to an immanent critique of the musical film.
Dancer in the Dark tells the story of Selma Ježková (played by Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother living in a Middle American factory town in the early 1960s, who is going blind due to a degenerative eye disease. Because Selma’s condition is genetic, her son Gene (Vladica Kostic) will also lose his sight if he does not receive corrective surgery in the very near future. In order to save up enough money for Gene’s operation, Selma works extra shifts at the local factory and does additional, informal labor to supplement her income. At the time the film narrative begins, she has saved up nearly enough money for Gene’s surgery.
The event that sets the film’s plot in motion occurs when Selma’s landlord Bill (David Morse), a mild-mannered police officer, steals Selma’s savings in order to get himself out of a financial predicament. When Selma confronts him, Bill refuses to give her back her money. He says that the only way for her to get it back is for her to kill him, which she does. The rest of the film recounts the step-by-step process that leads inexorably to Selma’s arrest, conviction, imprisonment, and execution.
This bleak film narrative is depicted in appropriately dreary colors and using von Trier’s signature freeform cinematography and his elliptical editing style. Shot with a hand-held digital video camera that thins out the image, and filmed in perpetually meandering rack-focus shots, the movie looks homemade. It is constructed to make us feel as though we were witnessing a slice of life recorded by a hypothetical observer rather than a work of narrative fiction created by a professional filmmaker. The impromptu cinematography is complemented in postproduction by liberal use of the jump cut, rather than narratively motivated shot transitions timed to a pre-established script. The film uses direct sound. It eschews artificial light and non-diegetic music, avoids mechanical shots with cranes or dollies, and generally opts for whatever narrative devices might make the film look and feel more like a direct reproduction of a gritty reality and less like an artificially constructed work of art, let alone a musical film.
Yet from the get-go, we are given to understand the importance that the musical film genre plays in the movie. Selma’s moments of respite from her harsh reality come from her love of musicals. The movie begins with a scene of Selma, in the role of Maria, rehearsing “My Favorite Things” for an amateur production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. We later see Selma and her friend Kathy watching the 1933 Warner Bros. classic 42nd Street, with choreography by Busby Berkeley. Because Selma cannot see what is happening on the screen, Kathy describes the action for her. Later, during another scene of the two friends at the movies, Kathy uses her fingers to tap out the dance steps of another Berkeley routine on the palm of Selma’s hand. Intertextual references of these sorts abound in the movie. Selma, a first-generation immigrant from Czechoslovakia, tells people, for example, that her father is Oldřich Nový, the celebrated Czech actor, director, singer, and dancer, who makes a surprise appearance as a tap-dancing witness during the trial scene toward the end of the movie. The tap-dancing Nový character is played by Joel Grey, best known for his portrayal of the MC in both the stage and the film versions of Cabaret, and Selma’s friend Kathy is played by Catherine Deneuve, whose career was launched by Jacques Demy’s magnificent 1964 musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.
The musical numbers in von Trier’s film look and sound very different from the ones in all of these musicals, and they function differently than they do in the integrated musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Warner Bros.’ backstage musicals, or Demy’s jazz opera. They essentially give audio-visual form to Selma’s flights from reality, enabling the viewer to escape, along with the protagonist, from a dreary life devoid of music into a fantastic world of song and dance.
These musical numbers form an integral part of the plot. However, in contrast to integrated musicals, where song lyrics advance the narrative much as they would if they were read as scripted dialogue and where characters do not show an awareness that they are singing and dancing, here the songs exist as discrete musical numbers performed as such, cut off from the narrative flow of the film. They resemble in this regard the internal performances of backstage musicals, which occur as bona-fide song-and-dance routines within the film’s diegesis. However, the numbers in Dancer in the Dark are not really diegetic in this sense either, for they exist only within Selma’s mind. It is Selma’s imagination that generates them and, crucially, that is where they stay. The numbers do not “contaminate” the narrative or spill over into the diegetic “real world” depicted on the screen. Once they are over, it is as though they never happened.
The techniques used to film the musical numbers in Dancer in the Dark audio-visually encode the sharp distinction between the imaginary world of song and dance and the gloomy real world in which Selma lives. Whereas virtually every shot in the narrative segments is filmed with a hand-held camera, the musical sequences splice together shots taken from as many as 100 different fixed camera positions. These shots are not necessarily static. The cameras are sometimes affixed to moving objects such as a train or a bicycle, but there are no pans or tilts, no swishes or zooms, no tracking shots per se, and no racking focus.
Moreover, the timing of the edits, unpredictable and erratic in the narrative segments, here follows cues in the music, producing a rhythmic montage dictated by the tempo of the songs. In conjunction with these changes in editing and camerawork, the surround-sound channels are activated when Selma’s audio-visual fantasies begin. Simultaneously, in a move that harks back to the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age, the dull color palette is suddenly enriched when the numbers begin.1 In sum, the song-and-dance routines in Dancer in the Dark are very much “musical moments” in the sense that Amy Herzog gives to the expression:
The rhythm of the music prescribes the cinematography and the pacing and timing of edits. The temporal logic of the films shifts, lingering in a suspended present rather than advancing the action directly. Movements within the frame are not oriented toward action but toward visualizing the trajectory of the song.2
The first of these musical moments occurs more than half an hour into the film, producing a jarring transition for the spectator that has spent the previous 30 or 40 minutes immersed in von Trier’s bleak vision of Selma’s dreary reality. The transition takes place during a scene in which Selma is working the night shift in order to make extra money for Gene’s operation. We see Selma repeatedly dipping sheets of steel into an emulsion, placing them on a metal press, pushing a button, and removing a fully formed stainless steel sink that she then places on a palette. The rhythmic sound of the machines in the factory, reminiscent of the industrial sounds one hears in a film like Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), produces a sort of percussive music. The scene then cuts from a drab close-up of Selma leaning into the metal press to a saturated image of two workers operating drill presses on the factory floor. In unison with this change in color quality, the sound is amplified as semi-diegetic (which is to say, imaginary) percussion is added to the ambient noise of the machinery and Selma starts conducting the industrial appliances as if they were an orchestra. By the time the song is in full swing, the factory floor has become a stage with workers performing a full-blown dance routine with Selma, one another, and the tools of their trade. The sequence even contains overhead shots reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley “cluster” number. The song then comes to a grinding halt when Selma, lost in reverie, is suddenly snapped back into reality by the sound of her equipment malfunctioning. In her distraction, she accidentally placed two metal sheets into the press, breaking the machine.
This inaugural musical number is more upbeat than most, but it typifies how the songs function in the film. We slip, along with Selma, from a suffocating reality into a fantastic alternate world of song and dance. The audio device that generates the transition into Selma’s fantasy world – in this case, the rhythmic sound of machines – is characteristic of the acoustic cues that trigger Selma’s flights of fancy. The sound of a freight train’s wheels clacking on railroad tracks generates a mesmerizing duet between Selma and her suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare). The noise of a needle crackling on a vinyl record as it spins on a turntable provides the cue for a song that Selma sings to the dead Bill, who magically comes to life and forgives Selma for killing him. Drumsticks tapping the top of a piano generate a song in which Selma sings of how, in her musical life, “there is always some one there to catch” her when she falls. The sound of pencils sketching portraits during the courtroom scene produces a number in which Oldřich Nový tap dances Selma’s acquittal. A prison guard’s steps provide the beat that generates a song-and-dance routine in which Selma comforts inmates on death row as she spins and twirls her way to the execution chamber. For the last song in the film – the only original song in the movie that does not use the aesthetic employed for the musical numbers – Selma, standing on the scaffold with a noose around her neck, has no sound to generate a song other than the beating of her heart. It is this muffled sound of her thumping heart that sets the tempo for the gut-wrenching a cappella piece that closes the film.
Also typical of the film’s musical moments in general is the way the factory number ends: with the violent intrusion of the external world into Selma’s fantasy world. The song in which Selma sings of how, in the musical version of her life, there is always someone there to catch her when she falls, is interrupted by the arrival of the police, who “catch” Selma in a very different sense than the one intended in her song. The film’s last two songs are the most brutal examples of this sort of violent interruption. The title of the second to last song, “107 Steps,” refers to the number of steps that separate Selma’s cell on death row from the scaffold where she will be put to death. The song lyrics consist entirely of Brenda (Siobhan Fallon), a sympathetic prison guard, counting up from 1 to 107 while Selma, who dances with prison guards and death-row inmates on her merry way to the scaffold, harmonizes with Brenda’s steady chant. However, the song is cut short at 106, the last number in the sequence being replaced by the sound of a metal door clanging behind Selma as she walks out onto the platform. The movie’s last song is truncated in an even more merciless fashion. It is cut short in mid-verse when the trap door opens beneath Selma’s feet, she falls through the hatch, and the noose snaps her neck. The last lines of the song appear only as written text superimposed on an image of Selma dangling from a rope. Prison guards then enter into the frame and draw a curtain closed, and the movie ends with its one and only crane shot, which glides vertically up from a position behind the spectators of the hanging to the level of the platform and then through the roof of the execution chamber.
In his illuminating film review, Ray Cole relates this closing crane shot to a previous moment in the film when Selma tells Bill how she hates the last song in musicals “because you just know when it goes really big, and the camera goes, like, out of the roof, […] you just know it’s going to end.”3 In this context, the movie’s final shot comes across like an acerbic commentary on the Hollywood musicals that Selma loves so much. Like “the last song” in a musical film, when “the camera goes, like, out of the roof,” the camera here literally goes through the roof, tracing in reverse the axis of Selma’s descent. When the distinction between narrative and number finally collapses at the end of the movie, we get a crane shot not in the service of a grand celebratory finale that brings everyone together but as an unspectacular countermovement to the heroine’s mortal plunge.
Cole notes in this regard that von Trier intended for the film’s musical overture to be played without imagery, with the movie theatre’s curtains closed. “When von Trier learned that many movie screens in American theaters didn’t have curtains,” Cole recounts, “he added a montage of paintings sequence to accompany the opening overture for American audiences.”4 The closing of the curtains at the end of the movie therefore recalls the opening of the curtains that was meant to take place at the beginning of the movie, as though they were one and the same curtain.
The presence of the internal audience in the closing shot renders all the more explicit this meta-cinematic dimension of the film. The camera is situated among the rows of seats, roughly at the spectators’ eye level, before it tracks “out the roof.” In this context, the internal spectators, who remain in their seats at the end of the spectacle, not moving, not speaking, and not even looking up at the curtain in front of them, mime the mute reaction of the hypothetical filmgoer, too stunned to get out of her seat at the end of the film.
In conclusion, I want to argue that these meta-cinematic moments render explicit something that is implicit throughout the film. The movie is largely about movies, in particular, about those movies in which people sing and dance their troubles away. Even this self-reflexivity situates the film in the long tradition of musicals about musicals. In sharp contrast to the traditional musical comedy, though, where narrative problems are resolved through the medium of song, here the resolution does not outlast the song. When the song ends, the camera goes through the roof, and the curtains close, we find ourselves back where we were before the song, or the film, began. Dancer in the Dark is ultimately a meta-anti-musical where the harsh reality of the everyday triumphs over the transcendent power of music.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.
- “The first widespread use of technicolor occurred in 1929 when four musicals were shot entirely in technicolor, with over a dozen more containing color sequences in the form of musical numbers. […] Even when all musicals came to be shot in color, some segments would be designated as more unreal than others by a more exaggerated use of color.” Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, p. 67. [↩]
- Herzog, Amy. Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, p. 7. [↩]
- Cole, Ray. “Thoughts on Dancer in the Dark: A Genre-Bending Tour-de-Force.” http://www.oldkingcole.com/reviews/movies/DancerInTheDark.html. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]