There seems no irony that the musical begins in earnest with the Great Depression, with “Footlight Parade”and “Gold Diggers of 1935” being Hollywood’s assurance to the public that life can be a bowl of cherries. In the postwar period, the musical reached epic proportions with “Kismet,” “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man,” and “The Sound of Music.” Each seemed an expression less of its own vapid storyline than of the triumph of escapism.
Lars Van Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” at first seems to share my grave doubts about the genre, since it starts off as something like a deconstructionist essay on the musical and its cultural legacy. The action takes place in an exceptionally bleak early-1960s America, photographed in a washed-out sepia, with cars and other iconography suggesting an even earlier nation of hard work, repression, and despair.
A young immigrant named Selma (Icelandic pop star Björk in her first—and, she maintains, only—role) and her young son survive in a less-than-friendly small town. She and her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve, beautiful even when frumpy) work at a grinding job in a sheet metal factory, where Selma can hardly keep up with the demands of the assembly line. To top it off, Selma is rapidly going blind. She saves every dime in a cigar box in order to provide medical care for her young son, who is stricken by the same genetic ailment caking his mother’s sight. A local cop, Selma’s mentor and confidant, suddenly turns vicious as his own financial woes turn him toward Selma’s savings. Things go from worse to much worse, as Selma finds herself charged for a murder not really her doing. Her trial resembles the Salem Witch Hunts combined with the McCarthy hearings. It takes little prescience to figure that she will be convicted, with the trial even exposing the fact that Selma came from a “communist” country. Selma is sentenced to hang, and the final reel takes viewers through her grueling experience of the minutia of death row.
Yes, this is a musical, although it’s hard to figure the convictions of “Dancer in the Dark.” It begins with a grandiose (but nevertheless beautiful) overture that is the earmark of musicals. The screen shows shifting color patterns suggesting both the changing of the seasons and the fading sight for a vision-impaired person. The moment is sensitive and enthralling, suggesting work of great portent on the way. As viewers are introduced to the characters, the tone shifts from the grandiose to the banal and back again. Kathy and Selma go to the movies—which seem to show nothing but 1930s musicals—and they later are cast members in a local production of “The Sound of Music.” This is where the deconstruction kicks in. Early on, the film invokes the genre, apparently for the purpose of commenting on its emptiness, on the fact that people don’t spontaneously break into song at a moment of crisis or, if they did, it would probably be seen as a symbol of the extremity of the problem. However, “Dancer in the Dark” wants to affirm what it simultaneously sees as ludicrous.
Back at the factory, the humdrum and increasingly burdensome workday is turned beautiful as Selma envisions a song-and-dance fest. The style shifts again, as it will several times before it is over. Throughout, Van Triers uses a handheld camera and a back-and-forth cinéma-vérité panning that makes the viewer a bit queasy. When Selma has her utopian visions of a synchronized world of music and togetherness, the camera slows to the techniques of classical Hollywood, the image blooming into saturated Technicolor. As Selma’s wan, depressed boyfriend consoles her about her approaching blindness, the moment turns into a musical paean to vision and why Selma can do without it. (She has “seen all she needs to see.”) After a disturbing murder scene, Selma sings that she “did only what [she] had to do.” Her trial becomes a song- and-dance number, complete with a visit from Joel Grey of “Cabaret” fame. Even a particularly cruel moment on death row is relieved as Selma manages to use her imagination to create a penitentiary filled with song—a place of mutual support and consolation, rather than punishment.
The jolting conclusion to “Dancer in the Dark” makes all the more troublesome Van Trier’s assertions and intent. The picture seems the most extreme example of the resistances built into the movie musical, with its story of an unremittingly grim world made lighter by art. He points out the banality of the idea early on, but then insists on its validity with a number of bold and unapologetic strokes. One way of reading the film suggests that, in Van Trier’s vision, America is an unremittingly bleak and cruel place, where the idea of transcendence is the bathos and impossibility of the musical. The reading makes sense when we take full notice of the labored nature of “Dancer in the Dark” with its mannered stylistic flourishes, its self-consciousness that is so emblematic of the spiritual vacuity of postmodern art.
Yet, to see the film as a debunking of the genre would ignore entirely the way that it celebrates musicals. There is little question that Van Trier is serious in his notion of the transcendent value of art, with the musical as a valid, maybe even best representation of this. The film’s coda is evidence enough.
One comes away, though, with mixed emotions. The striking set pieces and musical score make viewers recall the days when directors had something to say, or at least serious intent. On the other hand, the labored high seriousness is a reminder that such intent was often not warranted, and that there is nothing more boorish than a hack who thinks he has something to say. If one goes with this reading, “Dancer in the Dark” may be a suitable epilogue to the movie musical, since it is fully in accord with the genre.