Swing Time
Chris Povey on Dancer in the Dark

Is Dancer in the Dark really a musical? The story of an impoverished single mother and factory drone, Selma (Björk), rapidly losing her eyesight and working to save money for an operation for her similarly afflicted son and their subsequent run-in with the law lends itself more to classical tragic opera conventions than those of Hollywood musicals. To paraphrase Rick Altman, the signs of the musical form are not matched by the syntax—two filmmaking modes from different sides of the tracks (Danish dogm[e]atic drama and the Hollywood fantasy factory) collide, resulting in a tenuous coupling always threatening to collapse in on itself. Selma does spontaneously express herself through song, but how do you truly classify the way music functions here?

Though Dancer in the Dark is not a “Dogme” film, the non-musical sequences indicate von Trier hasn’t completely foregone the techniques of that 1995 manifesto. Out of all the rules he could have employed, he chose to stick with the most forthrightly irritating: handheld video, wobbly framing, jump cuts. But by visualizing this approach in only part of the film, Lars tries to have his film, and film itself, two ways. Dogme denounces filmic tricks, but in the same breath he has created and used the medium to craft a cinematic stunt. Is it possible to make half a Dogme film?

When Dancer moves to musical mode, the video looks a little less watery, the color and lighting is markedly improved. Rigged with about a hundred unmanned digital cameras, the numbers are shot with ghosted steady-hands, and they cut between disembodied surveillance footage and clipped arms and legs marching on severe angles, rushing through a naturalist mise-en-scène of factories, train tracks, and courtrooms. The setting and costuming of the chorus (for want of a better term) is consistent with Selma’s reality, but the language of movement is formal rather than colloquial, factory workers who have caught an industrial train straight from Broadway, while appearing sedated in numbers full of flat-footed choreography rendered almost illegible by the editing.

Lars von Trier has claimed postpartum displeasure with aspects of the musical numbers, not least the results of a soundtrack produced separately from the images (though he comfortably admits deciding to post-produce the non-musical sound). He was also disappointed that he did not have greater faculty to pack his numbers with Busby Berkeley–style pyrotechnics; with specially built booms, monorails, and cranes shooting down through the studio roof. It’s hard to understand how these stilted visions actually relate to the melodrama of the film except as diversions or ironic statements on the distance between entertainment and reality. Knowing von Trier, this disconnect is most of the point.

With its brief “musical within a musical” moment near the beginning in which Selma and her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) murder Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes while stumbling around on stage in an amateur rehearsal of The Sound of Music, Dancer in the Dark constantly makes reference to popular musical conventions. This “backstage musical” provides a context, perhaps for viewers who object to musicals on the basis that people don’t simply burst forth and express themselves in song. Many Hollywood musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon did the same, preserving reality amidst the singing and dancing because, in a self-referential twist, these films presented performers acting as performers. Von Trier has nailed up his influences and targets everywhere. Later, there’s a scene in which an almost-blind Selma sits in a cinema showing 42nd Street while Kathy whispers descriptions of the dance sequences in her ear, even tapping out the movements on Selma’s palm. And eventually, Cabaret’s Joel Grey will cameo to slyly tap-dance away the injustices of the death penalty. Oh the irony: singing and dancing before the heroine is carted off and hung in an “American” genre flick from a director who has admitted to never having set foot in the United States.

As its preposterous depiction of the American judicial system demonstrates, Dancer in the Dark is, for its characters as much as the audience, all about suspension of disbelief as a response to reality. Selma’s demise is effectively expedited through the interplay of melodrama and fiction expressed in the relationships between the characters. Her insidious policeman neighbor, Bill (David Morse), who also reveals a love of musicals, creates a web of lies about the innocent Selma for his trusting wife; and in her eventual trial, the prosecution doubts the she is blind, accusing her as a thoughtless and selfish liar. The stories stacked against Selma by Bill and by the State (through the machinations of the prosecution) reveal that fiction cannot save her.

We are left with patches of melodrama and musicals, stitched together by Björk’s glitchy electro-showtunes, each based on the rhythms of the everyday: in the analogue skipping of vinyl, the drum and bass carriage of train tracks, the scratch and tap of pen and paper. This percussion of the ordinary pulls Selma to fantasy; she is flipped from work and criminal responsibility into song-and-dance super-productions in which the murdered rise to forgive their killers and jail cells are thrown wide open. As Selma’s rhythm of misfortune accelerates, the musical numbers occur with increasing frequency. These dreamlike scenes are based in a perverse logic, inverting Selma’s reality to create that classic musical syntax, escape. Where in life she is unhappy and overworked, in music Selma and those around her express their happiness through coordinated movements (“Cvalda”). When she kills, death does not hold, and forgiveness floats in the chorus (“Scatterheart”). In the courtroom a passive Selma is savaged by the prosecution, yet in the music of her head, she is tap-dancing along with the jury, judiciary, gallery, and prosecution witnesses in her troupe (“In the Musicals”). But in a sense, Von Trier is affirming the value of escapism and entertainment in a way that denies their power. He suggests music can only be a mere futile diversion from a reality that will hang you in the end. Moreover, Dancer in the Dark suggests that the “passivity” of film-watching is also complicit in Selma’s destruction; she simply observes, goofily, rapt, as her life just slips away.