Monday, December 19, 2011

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Seen: On dvd on our big screen/projector set-up, rented from netflix.

Bubbly factory worker Selma Jezkova (Björk) has a pretty shit life. A single mother, she left her home in Czechoslovakia for America with the intention of working to pay for a special surgery for her young son Gene (Vladica Kostic). He is afflicted with the same genetic illness she is, which is causing her to gradually go blind. She hides this fact from him and pretends to be saving money for a Czech dancer she claims is her father. When her neighbor and landlord Bill (David Morse) admits to near-bankruptcy, a miserable chain of events is enacted that spirals Selma's life further and further down the road to Everything Sucks-ville. To cope with her trauma, she makes up musical numbers in her head.

It's pretty easy for me to align myself with a musical lover. It's no secret I wish my life was a musical, and I've been devouring them up since I was a kid- on both stage and screen. With Dancer in the Dark, von Trier and composer Björk experiment with one of my favorite genres to create a strange melodrama that also acts as something of a commentary on the supposed "American Dream" advertised by splashy old-timey musicals. Only in her fantasies can Selma achieve the kind of sugar-coated joy she longs to experience with her friends and family; she can't even act it out onstage, as her worsening eyesight forces her to drop out of the starring role in a local production of The Sound of Music.

Set in 1964, this is just around the time when classic movie musicals were falling out of favor, with rock music and a bit of grittiness finding their way into the genre, so it seems fitting that Selma's naive dreams are offset by reality. Of course, the amount of negative developments and just depressing concepts is at an almost ridiculous level here, and the story is very blatantly emotionally manipulative and over the top. Though I recognized that von Trier was playing with my head, I gave in and was strongly affected by the trials of this beaten-down protagonist. Björk gives a beautiful performance, characterized by ebullience and childlike innocence that defy her considerable struggle. It helps that I love her singing voice and the musical numbers- though fewer than I would have liked- are heartfelt and enormously entertaining.

It's overlong and heavy-handed in its storytelling, but generally I found Dancer in the Dark a successful venture. It retains certain trappings of classic musicals, including simplistic characterization and high-concept set-pieces, but for the most part forges ahead as a dark, dirty look at a woman who is decidedly in over her head. It is clear early on that there is no way this story can end happily; the musical numbers are there to both soften the blow and drive the nail in deeper. I know some people criticize this film for being overly manipulative and seemingly intentionally dismissive of musical stereotypes, using a normally happy narrative form and subverting it just to make things worse. While I agree with the first comment, it's not like Dancer in the Dark is the first sad musical. Have you seen Carousel? (Hint: don't see Carousel.) Or Miss Saigon? The King & I? Les Miserables? And nothing good happens in Carmen. This is a thing that has happened before, is what I'm saying.


Pair This Movie With: After this was over and I had cleaned up the many tear-soaked tissues lying around, I just wanted to watch something upbeat, so I'd say go with one of your favorite comedies.

Oh and I did make some art for this, though I hope to develop it further later.


  1. I've heard good, but mostly bad things about Von Trier and I know his movies are not easy, but this movie sounds very interesting. You got my attention, I will check it out soon! Great review!

  2. I love this one, it is a depressing film true, but it's also a moving film. I felt such compassion for Selma, Bjork did such a great job on her first film performance! Also, from a technical point of view this movie has some amazing things about it. I mean, they shot some scenes with so many cameras, from so many different angles! Loved that about it. Plus, Bjorks songs are great, this is a bitter sweet film.

  3. When I presented my list of the top 50 musicals of all time, I placed this one at #29 as seen below. I watched so many musicals this year as I was helping with the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals countdown. Either way, I think this is one of Von Trier's best films. I really like the interplay between the gritty realism and the fantasy. It's what I remember most of all. I still need to see the new one Melancholia.

    1. The Sound of Music (1965)
    2. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
    3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
    4. Swing Time (1936)
    5. Cabaret (1972)
    6. A Star is Born (1954)
    7. A Hard Day's Night (1964)
    8. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
    9. 42nd Street (1933)
    10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
    11. An American in Paris (1951)
    12. West Side Story (1961)
    13. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
    14. Mary Poppins (1964)
    15. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
    16. Funny Girl (1968)
    17. On the Town (1949)
    18. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
    19. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
    20. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
    21. Easter Parade (1948)
    22. The Music Man (1962)
    23. The Band Wagon (1953)
    24. Top Hat (1935)
    25. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
    26. Yellow Submarine (1968)
    27. Once (2006)
    28. Oliver! (1968)
    29. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
    30. Funny Face (1957)
    31. The Red Shoes (1949)
    32. Fantasia (1940)
    33. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
    34. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
    35. Kiss Me Kate (1953)
    36. The Little Mermaid (1989)
    37. Footlight Parade (1933)
    38. Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
    39. Oklahoma! (1955)
    40. Annie (1982)
    41. My Fair Lady (1964)
    42. The Blue Angel (1930)
    43. Amadeus (1984)
    44. White Christmas (1954)
    45. Pinocchio (1940)
    46. Grease (1978)
    47. Cabin in the Sky (1943)
    48. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
    49. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
    50. Lili (1953)

  4. I've rarely seen such audacious deconstruction & re-definition of a genre as Lars von Trier did here with Musicals. Great review as always!

  5. Honestly... I hated this movie with a passion. Thought it was way too manipulative and heavy-handed. Though I did like the music (I have the soundtrack).

  6. Aziza: Yeah this is only my second Von Trier after MELANCHOLIA. This is one of the few films from him I was interested in, and while I liked it, I don't think I would ever seek out all of his movies.

    Connoisseur: Yes Bjork was the best part about it, I thought! And you're right, there are some really cool camera tricks, which I forgot to mention in my review.

    Jon: Interesting list! I'm not sure if DANCER IN THE DARK would make my top 50 musicals, there are so many that I love it's hard to imagine where they would all fit!

    Shubhajit: A bold statement! But a good point.

    Rich: A lot of people seem to feel that way about it, I totally understand. It seems very polarizing. I want to get the soundtrack too!

  7. This is one of the few movies that I just bear to watch again. It was a great movie, but it made me ball my eyes out.