Björk plays Selma, a Czech single mother who has emigrated to the United States in the 1950s to obtain the American medical expertise which will guarantee her young son’s future health—Selma fears he is about to be afflicted by the same hereditary eye problem which, as the film begins, she is starting to suffer from herself. Scrimping and saving wages from the grim manual labour she performs in a rural metalwork factory, Selma’s only modes of escapism are the Hollywood musicals she devours together with Cvalda, a fellow factory worker (Deneuve) and her role in a local production of well, of course—The Sound of Music. It is Selma’s infatuation with musicals which allows her to imaginatively recast the drudgery of factory work, with all its attendant mechanical clatterings, into a sepia-tinted musical stage set worthy of Fred’n’Ginger. Given that Von Trier has turned from the ostensibly “authentic” (actually playful) ten principles of the Dogme group to the musical, with all that genre’s high camp connotations, the move has met with understandable scepticism. Many of those who preconceive Dancer in the Dark as an exercise in pure style or postmodern pastiche will feel vindicated when Selma and other characters are seen discussing the musical genre even before the first song sequence comes along (surprisingly late in proceedings— about forty-five minutes in). Von Trier’s defenders will say that such self-referentiality negotiates the inherent “artificiality” of the musical genre. Yet that first musical sequence—in which Selma bursts into “I’ve Seen It All” at the moment that her adoring suitor (beautifully played by Peter Stormare) realises that the subject of his admiration is going blind—will surely make clear to all that Von Trier is not interested in making a merely nostalgic musical-by-numbers (in that sense Dancer in the Dark is a million miles away from Woody Allen’s execrable Everyone Says I Love You, 1996). Certainly, the fact that the musical sequences only take place in Selma’s mind, and that this somewhat abstracts the generic form from the narrative itself, may encourage detractors to argue that this merely proves Von Trier’s emotional disengagement. Yet this torque also allows Von Trier to emphasise the gap between Selma’s American Dream—as expressed in her love of Hollywood musicals, and her own mental-musical transformation of her rural-industrial environment into a Norman Rockwell landscape of singing and dancing suburban families—and the rather grimmer social reality. Indeed, the second song sequence, “Cvalda,” even more clearly emphasises the gap between the mundane labour the factory workers perform, and the metal machine music—“clatter, clash, clang,” Björk sings in onomatopoeic ecstasy—playing in Selma’s head. (Yet I suppose this oblique social critique, too, may be taken by some as evidence that the director, with his Danish hippie-commie upbringing and all that, does not sufficiently love the Hollywood musical to accede to its accompanying, all-American cultural assumptions. One also suspects that Von Trier is well aware that Selma’s fantasy of happy proles approximates Soviet art as much as it does the—dare one use the phrase nowadays ?—false consciousness of Hollywood musicals. Furthermore, the film strongly suggests that the terrifyingly casual anti-communism of the McCarthy era is one of the larger social forces that casts a grim shadow over our Eastern European heroine, pushing her that bit quicker towards her doom.) Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the musical sequences manage to be, if not exactly integral to the general narrative, emotionally effective perspectives upon Selma’s optimistic worldview.
To return to the plot : Selma has almost saved up enough hard cash for her son’s operation when—well, without giving too much away, fate (or rather, Selma’s increasing blindness and others’ desperation or lack of sympathy) conspires to separate working mother and hard-earned wages. Von Trier sends Selma on a desperate mission to recover the cash and, with it, her boy’s future. Suffice it to say that Selma’s quest merely takes her from bad to worse to an almost inevitable terminus on death row. Uncut’s Chris Roberts put it succintly : Selma’s “relentless bad luck makes Emily Watson’s in Von Trier’s ‘96 doom-fest Breaking the Waves seem like a stroll in the park.” Hence, those who were highly affected by that film will have their heart well and thoroughly wrenched by Dancer in the Dark ; those who balked at what seemed to be Von Trier’s purging of his Catholic guilt through Watson’s character will be appalled by Selma, another woman so selfless as to seem like a latter-day saint suffering for all our sins. (Such is the harrowing nature of Von Trier’s script that one can fully understand the rumours that, by also becoming Selma outside the studio in true Methodic fashion, Björk suffered intense emotional torture ; the actress herself has supposedly accused the director of “emotional pornography.”) The fact that Selma remains so determined and so selfless will seem implausible, even insulting to many viewers. Yet I never felt that Selma’s actions, her nigh-on saintly selflessness, ever came completely detached from her experiences and, especially, her sense of obligation to her son. It is also likely that certain facts which Selma keeps secret will infuriate many moviegoers, as her reluctance to tell the truth dooms her. However, I think that these secrets, too, can be traced back to Selma’s ultimate concern for her son’s future.
It is, to say the least, testament to Von Trier’s daring that Selma’s trip down death row is interrupted by the final, most outrageous musical sequence, jauntily titled “106 Steps” in reference to the number of strides taken on the walk itself. For some, the moment that the singing Selma pauses and lies down for a moment with another doomed denizen of death row will be the moment at which her saintliness is carried beyond any boundaries of taste. Yet I would suggest that already this sequence has been offset by the previous scene, in which Selma has desperately tried, but for once failed, to transform her reality into musical fantasy by conjuring an a-capella “My Favourite Things.” Similarly, the incongruous joie de vivre of “106 Steps” is compensated by the film’s final act ; at the risk of being facetious, I defy George W. Bush to watch that scene and then defend the death penalty on Oprah.
So, I liked Dancer in the Dark. A lot. But beyond that, I would not presume to speak for others. What I will say is that there is another sense in which you have to see this film : whether you love or loathe it, you will have to admit there is no-one—certainly no-one in Britain—taking the chances which Lars Von Trier takes in this film. Not even the Lars Von Trier who made the Lynch-ier than thou Riget (The Kingdom, 1994), the brilliant Breaking the Waves (1996) or the censor-baiting Idioterne (1998). Who else would cast the archetypal French ice maiden Deneuve as a working-class Czech immigrant spinster ? (This is, lest we forget, the man who cast Denmark’s premiere porn star in Idioterne.) Who else would cast a pop star in a film like this (OK, OK, there was Madonna in Evita but this isn’t Evita any more than it’s Chicken Run), and insist she also writes the music (Von Trier, of course, wrote the lyrics) in order to fully express Selma’s being ? Which brings me to my final point—this is one case where the maxim “see the film, buy the soundtrack” obtains. Not only does “Selmasongs” completely redefine our expectations of both traditional musical and modern tie-in soundtracks, it also ranks with Björk’s best work. Besides that voice, the production, by Björk and former LFO man Mark Bell, is a revelation. ‘I’ve Seen It All’ and ‘New World’ approximate the grand sweep of “Jóga” or “Play Dead” (the former features Radiohead’s Thom Yorke performing Stormare’s part ; as one wag has said, it’s the closest that the man behind “Kid A” has come to a melody in some time) ; “Cvalda” manages to marry the sound of musicals to techno beats’n’pieces which brilliantly approximate the industrial “rhythms” of the metalwork factory. Björk has said she’ll never make another film ; well, here’s hoping both she and Von Trier, in their respective fields of choice, can maintain the inspiration they found together—whatever their mooted mutual dislike—during the making of Dancer in the Dark.