Thoughts on Dancer In The Dark

A Genre-Blending Tour-de-Force

Supplementary Material

Dancer in the Dark won the Palm d'Or for Best Picture at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and also secured for its lead actress, pop singer Björk, the Best Female Performance award. It is a most unusual film: a melodrama, shot like a documentary, in which characters break out into song and dance as in a musical. It's not even shot on film, director Lars von Trier opting to use digital video instead, sometimes employing as many as 100 cameras at once to capture a scene.

While interesting in their own right, all of Dancer in the Dark's genre-blending experimental tendencies are used in the service of a tale that packs an enormous, old-fashioned emotional punch. Few movies are this emotionally potent. If you cry easily at films, be warned.

I hadn't seen any of Danish director Lars von Trier's works before watching Dancer In The Dark on DVD a couple of nights ago. Von Trier is a central figure in the Dogme95 filmmaking movement, in which Dogme95 filmmakers eschew all that is slick and phony in commercial Hollywood films in an effort to get back to something raw and real. Ironically, though, Dancer in the Dark is just as contrived and manipulative as any film coming out of Tinseltown. What's different about Dancer in the Dark is the unconventional means by which von Trier achieves his manipulative power.

There's a scene in Dancer In The Dark in which Björk's character, Selma, describes how a conventionally manipulative Hollywood film tells us what to feel: "it goes really big and the camera goes, like, out of the roof...," she says, making reference to the sweeping camera moves and swelling strings on the soundtrack that mark a conventional film's emotional landscape. By contrast, Dancer in the Dark never manipulates us this way. Except in its fantasy musical song-and-dance numbers, there is no underscore music of any kind in this film, so dramatic moments are never coated with a thick glop of syrupy violins. And, with one exception (discussed below), there are no big camera sweeps or crane shots either.

Melodrama Anchored to Reality Through Cinematography

The film is shot like a documentary, with hand-held cameras in a cinema vérité style that makes us feel more like participants than observers, as if we were there in the room with the characters as they are experiencing their most vulnerable, private moments. With the camera so close, and the lack of distracting artifices like a musical underscore or pristinely framed camerawork that comments on the action, our full focus is directed instead to the characters' words. And those words, more often than not, are delivered in hushed intimacy, drawing us in with the power of a whisper. Our ability to read the play of emotions across the characters' faces is also heightened by this intimate cinematic style.

In a film shot this way, the smallest gestures can carry meaning. Watching Catherine Deneuve's character, Kathy, cover her mouth with her hand to stifle a worried cry as she sees a nearly blind Selma use a railroad track to guide herself home communicates volumes. The warmth of the scene in which Kathy dances two fingers across the palm of Selma's hand at the movie theater to convey to her the essence of the Busby Berkeley dance number playing out on the movie screen in front of them, is similarly touching. And if the small moments like this are emotionally effective, when the really bad stuff starts to happen, there is a concomitant escalation of emotional involvement that makes certain sequences almost too much to take.

A New Mythic Model

At some primal level, the story was inspired by Guld Hjerte (in English: Gold Heart), a picture-book that Lars von Trier read as a child. It tells the tale of a little girl who lives in a lonely cabin in the woods who one day goes out into the forest and gives away everything she has. In the end, broke, cold, and alone in the woods, at what should be her deepest moment of despair, a mysterious power favors her with wealth; and the boy she gave her sweater to turns out to be a prince, who marries her for her kind heart.

However, von Trier's copy of this book was missing the ending. As a result, his impressionable young mind saw the tale as one of simple self-sacrifice with no promise of reward, and it seems to have become a potent mythic model for him. He's made three films about female martyrdom -- Breaking The Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer In The Dark -- which together he calls his "Golden Heart Trilogy".

In Dancer In The Dark, Selma is a kind-hearted, mildly retarded single mom with a congenital eye disease which is causing her to go slowly blind. Her twelve year old son, Gene (as in "genetics", or, as a friend pointed out, perhaps "Gene Kelly") doesn't know it yet, but because the condition is genetic, he too is destined for blindness unless he has an operation before his thirteenth birthday. Selma also believes that it is necessary to keep Gene's condition a secret from him, otherwise he might worry and that would lead to the disease becoming incurable.

But Selma is a blue-collar immigrant laborer, so saving up the thousands of dollars for Gene's operation means working multiple shifts of a stifling job at the local metal-sink-making factory and taking home additional mind-numbing work like hand filling 10,000 display cards with hair-pins for whatever meager extra income she can get. She keeps her savings, in cash, in a candy tin that she hides in the back of a closet in the cramped trailer where she and her son live.

The trailer is parked on the property of a soft-spoken local police officer, Bill, and his wife. One day, late at night, Bill comes to Selma's trailer to confess that his wife, who thinks he is rich from an inheritance, has unknowingly spent all their money, and that he is afraid she will leave him when she finds out he is broke. He desperately needs cash. Selma in turn confesses that, while her own impending blindness is inevitable, she can save Gene's sight with an operation and is getting close to having the necessary money to pay for it. And by now, I guess you can see where this is going. In short, Selma has been set up as the perfect victim, and indeed we spend the rest of this nearly two-and-a-half hour film watching her be systematically victimized in ways that are crushingly sad -- sad not only for their inherently tragic qualities, but also because the childlike character of Selma very strongly engages our protective instincts, so that we really don't want these tragedies to befall her.

Emotions Take Us Farther Than Intellect

As with anything this strong, there is a fine line between tragedy and defensive derision. I felt the film worked very powerfully at an emotional level, but there will doubtless be others who find the whole thing nauseating or laughably over-the-top. To submit to this film's power requires the viewer to look past the shallowness of the plot to the emotional throughline underneath. It ultimately doesn't matter if Selma's reason for keeping Gene's impending blindness a secret from him makes any sense. If you don't like the (rather flimsy) reason the filmmakers chose, make up a better one yourself. The exact reason is unimportant. What's important is that Selma believes the secret must be kept, and would rather die than divulge it. Selma's commitment to keeping that secret has an emotional truthfulness that far outweighs whatever plot McGuffin is used to justify it at the story level. Viewers who can't or won't make that leap of faith, will have a hard time getting anything out of this movie. Lars von Trier has said that viewers can be taken farther on their emotions than their intellects would consider reasonable. To my mind, this film proves it.

A Fabulist's America as Seen by a European

Even before things go really bad, Selma's blue-collar existence would be hard to bear. Indeed, her environs remind one not so much of America as of the English Forest of Dean coal-mining towns and their blue-collar inhabitants that regularly populate British writer Dennis Potter's similarly dark screenplays (e.g., The Singing Detective or the TV version of Pennies From Heaven (the one with Bob Hoskins, not Steve Martin)).

If the cinema vérité style helps infuse the melodramatic tale with a sense of realism, the story's plot contrivances are further ameliorated by the fact that the "American" town in Washington state where this film is supposed to be set, is no more convincingly American than Jackie Chan's New York borough was in Rumble in the Bronx. It is purely a constructed, artificial setting, and this actually makes it easier for us in the audience to accept that it might carry with it its own dramatic rules, as in a fable, a fantasy, or a sci-fi story. Within its own constructed universe, the characters treat the events as real in a convincing way (the acting throughout this film is stellar), inviting us to believe them too. There is a weirdly effective irony in shooting a film whose plot, characters, and settings are such obvious artifices in a gritty, documentary style. Imagine if The Wizard of Oz had been shot in a cinema vérité style, as if Dorothy and the Tin Man had been mundanely real. I've rarely seen a cinematic style so seemingly incompatible with its subject matter work so well.

An Astonishing Contribution from Björk

Björk's performance demands special accolades. It is amazingly strong. The emotional demands it must have placed on her simply boggle the mind. She never makes a misstep, giving a performance that is so emotionally naked and raw that it is at times hard to watch. Her two most horrifying sequences are absolutely riveting and project such a complex mix of girlish vulnerability and matronly resolve, that I found it impossible to avert my eyes from the emotional trainwreck unfolding before me. Björk poured her soul into this performance and every agonizing moment of it has been captured on screen. Of the film's many strengths, Björk's turn as Selma ranks near the very top, to the point where the film would be worth seeing just to witness the intensity of her portrayal. The fact that she is not a trained actress and that she is required to carry nearly every scene of this 141 minute film, only makes Björk's accomplishments here even more impressive. It is truly a performance I will not soon forget.

Her character Selma's only joy in life, outside of her son, is American musicals. Indeed, her expectations of what America would be like seem to be largely based upon American movies and especially American musicals that she saw while still in Czechoslovakia. The disparity between the naive magical America that the films propose, and the actual America she inhabits as a poor, undereducated immigrant, is part of the tragedy of her circumstances.

Although the America she finds herself in is nothing like the America promised to her in the musicals she loves, her love for those musicals continues unabated. Despite having absolutely no talent, and not being able to even see well enough to walk across the stage, let alone dance, she is happy to be rehearsing the part of Maria in a local community theater production of The Sound of Music. With her friend Kathy, she regularly goes to the movies to see old musicals. And when life's drudgery gets to be too much for her, she fantasizes that her life is a musical, where, as she puts it, "nothing dreadful ever happens". This leads to a number of song and dance sequences, for which Björk was tapped to write the music.

These musical numbers are not wholly effective, though they aren't as ineffective as they at first appear either. They definitely lack the slick sweep that they need to adequately contrast with the drab horrors of Selma's real life. As escapist fantasies, most are too dark-toned and earthbound. As one reviewer put it, they merely plod along when they need to soar. But after repeated viewings, I've come to realize that only a couple of the numbers are actually intended to be Selma's escapist fantasies. Other numbers are more like amplifications of her current state of mind. In fact, the strongest numbers are of this kind.

In her song, "I've Seen It All", she attempts to convince her would-be suitor, Jeff, that she doesn't care that she's going blind. It's couched as a dialog between the two of them in which they catalog the various sites that Selma has or hasn't yet seen. On the surface, this song appears to be a simple, traditional catalog song in the mold of "My Favorite Things" or "Seventy-Six Trombones." These songs, in which the lyrics rattle off lists or catalogs of things (e.g., "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, ...") are common in musicals. "I've Seen it All", however, contains an uncommonly complex mix of emotions. It derives much of its power from our realization that Selma is most likely trying to convince herself as much as Jeff. But we also realize that going blind is truly awful for her, because why else would she have sacrificed so much to save her son from that fate? And yet, at another, more profound level, she has already accepted her impending blindness, and so it truly is no longer important -- only saving her son from going blind matters now. The song effectively encapsulates these conflicting thoughts and presents them with a compelling combination of hopefulness and resignation.

Her "107 Steps" song has a fatalistic function similar to that of classical minimalism as used in films like Gattaca or The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. The song's ever-ascending counting from 1 to 107 is like the countdown of a clock and signals the unstoppable forward momentum leading toward the impending tragedy that awaits her. The fantasies of affection and kindness she imagines while this counting plays out, and the hopefulness for a happy ending that would be possible if this sequence were part of a classic 1940's musical, are twice as tragic for our knowledge that this is not a classic musical, and no such happy-ending hope is warranted. Even so, when the inevitable end comes, it still seems shocking for a movie to be willing to take things so far. Even Dennis Potter, who brought his Pennies From Heaven characters to the brink, didn't, in the end, shove them over the edge.

The Look of Her Dreams

In capturing the dance numbers on tape, von Trier has made some interesting cinematic choices. First, in contrast to the hand-held camera used in the rest of the movie, the fantasy sequences were shot instead with multiple cameras none of which employ any camera motion at all -- no pans, no zooms. The cinematic rhythm of the sequences is provided almost entirely by the pace of cuts made from one static camera viewpoint to another.

Von Trier's reasoning was that by setting up a lot of cameras (as many a 100 in some shots) and allowing the action to pass in front of them (or not), he would retain a sense of capturing a "live" event and deny himself the mannered, sweeping crane shots or other clichéd camerawork that would normally be utilized to film a song-and-dance sequence in a traditional musical.

And it must be said that this technique has some very positive qualities. For one, it works marvelously at a metaphoric level, allowing us to feel viscerally that Selma is only on stable ground while in her fantasy world. Outside of her daydreams, amidst the bobbing handheld camera work, we see, feel, and experience along with her, her sense of her life slowy shaking out of control. In this sense, the static immobility of the "100 Cameras" technique works by direct contrast with the cinema vérité style used in the rest of the film.

The technique also offers a very effective, omniscient point of view from which to witness Selma's manifest fantasies. Choreographer Vincent Paterson points out on the commentary track during the "I've Seen It All" sequence, that we are able to see Selma climb onto the train from a collection of images cut together from a large number of perspectives, all of which could be from the same take of Björk's performance. This is made possible only because there were so many cameras capturing that performance, each from a different angle. Seeing the sequence of her climbing onto the train from a dozen or so perspectives in the span of a couple of seconds really helps release the sequence from physical bounds. That is, it makes it seem believably dreamlike because it un-anchors us as viewers from any one viewpoint associated with a specific physical place. We effectively view it with a "mind's-eye", all-perspectives-at-once view, more consistent with a dream reality than physical reality.

Which is all well and good, but it must also be said that in many instances, the earthbound, immobile camera perspectives, more so than the music, are responsible for the overall impression of the dance sequences lacking sweep. Von Trier has said that one of the things he learned from using the "100 cameras" technique is that a hundred cameras isn't enough -- he'd like to have had a thousand or even ten thousand. Perhaps with greater coverage of the event, from more angles and perspectives, this technique can be improved upon in the future to address some of the problems with the scenes feeling constricted. But as used in Dancer In The Dark, I feel the technique is something of a mixed bag.

Fortunately, camerawork isn't the only thing that distinguishes Selma's fantasies from her reality. The color palette expands greatly in her fantasy sequences, taking her (and us) out of her desaturated, drab world into a place of much greater color vibrancy. Additionally, the surround channels in the sound system, which are generally quiescent during the bulk of the film, engage dramatically for these scenes.

All of these techniques make the return to reality from her fantasy sequences especially hard from an emotional/psychological standpoint. As we, along with Selma, come crashing out of her reveries, we start to realize how much inner strength is demanded of her just to continue moving forward in the cruel harshness of her real life, a harshness which is made more evident by its contrast with her warm, brightly colored dreams.

Near the end of the film, these contrasting shooting styles take on additional storytelling power. There are two songs sung by Selma a cappella. In the first, she sings "My Favorite Things" (from The Sound of Music), and when she begins, the camerawork switches to the locked-down "100 cameras" style, indicating that she is escaping once again from her grim reality into the saftey and comfort of song. Two song-sequences later, though, in even more dire circumstances, she again begins to sing a cappella, but this time the cinematography stubbornly refuses to switch to the "100 cameras" style, signalling to us that, finally, Selma's circumstances are so grim that even the power of music and fantasy cannot make things right for her. If you've stuck with the film to this point, the combination of Björk's phenomenal acting, Selma's desperate singing, and the refusal of the camerawork to look away, conveys her tragedy with a powerful, almost operatic intensity.

Curtains for Selma

There are some nice touches in the way the film is constructed too. Everywhere except in the United States, Dancer In The Dark opens with a musical overture sans image. When von Trier learned that many movie screens in American theaters didn't have curtains, he added a montage of paintings sequence to accompany the opening overture for American audiences. However, his original idea was that the overture would play out in darkness with the theater curtains drawn. They would open dramatically at the close of the overture.

Understanding this, then, allows one to appreciate the symmetry of the ending scene, in which curtains are drawn closed just before the camera makes its one and only crane shot. As Selma pointed out, you know the film is going to end when the camera goes through the roof, and that's exactly what it ultimately does.

Sadness as Catharsis; Death as Transcendence

Because of his willingness to put his saintly, childlike main character through such heaping helpings of emotional agony, von Trier has been accused of being merely sadistic. I never felt that sadism was the operating force in this film, though, and certainly not in the mean-spirited, puerile way that Paul Verhoeven's films regularly display. Nevertheless, one has to wonder at the end what von Trier's point is. What are we supposed to take away from watching this wrenching tale of woe?

Sadness can, of course, be cathartic, and there is a sense in which Selma's life-goal -- to save her son from blindness -- is ultimately achieved. Since that was her only reason for living, her sacrifice could be read as a release from earthly suffering earned by the good deed she did (Jude Law's character's final act in Gattaca could be read the same way, for example).

The film is also a poignant love song to the power of music, fantasy, imagination and hope, to make life bearable.

Highly Recommended

If a movie which provokes an extremely powerful sadness in its viewers won't frighten or embarrass you, then I highly recommend this DVD. Just be prepared to be depressed when the end credits roll, and to have its images and harrowingly emotional scenes rattle around in your head long after the disc is back on the shelf. This film lingers in the mind, and has haunted me for days since watching it.

And, although I'd seen and enjoyed other dramas shot with hand-held cameras (particularly Barry Levinson's Homicide TV series, which Lars von Trier cites as one of his formative influences), Dancer In The Dark utilized this technique to such powerful ends that it has completely changed my view about the grammar of cinematography. This movie makes a compelling case for what von Trier calls "transmission" as opposed to the carefully choreographed and therefore more artificial and distancing cinematography used in traditional moviemaking. I think I will have a hard time watching traditional cinematography after experiencing what is possible with a handheld camera.

What more can I say? As this film continues to settle in my memory, it grows in stature. It's too dark to ever be a popular film that appeals to the masses, but it wouldn't surprise me if, ten years from now, directors of popular films were cribbing techniques used here and citing Dancer in the Dark as a potent influence that changed the way they thought about their craft.

Copyright 2002 Ray Cole

Other reviews by Ray Cole: [Movies] [Music]