Dancer in the Dark is an award-winning musical film drama released in 2000. It was directed by Lars von Trier and stars Björk Guðmundsdóttir, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Vladica Kostic, Cara Seymour and Peter Stormare. The soundtrack for the film, released as the album Selmasongs, was written mainly by Björk, but a number of songs featured contributions from Mark Bell and the lyrics were by Lars Von Trier and Sjón.
Dancer in the Dark is the third film in Lars von Trier's 'Golden Heart Trilogy'; the previous two films were Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998). The film was an international co-production between companies based in several countries: Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, United States, United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway. It was shot with a hand held camera, and was somewhat inspired by a Dogme 95 look.
Dancer in the Dark premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to standing ovations and controversy and was awarded the Palme d'Or, along with the Best Actress award for Björk. The song "I've Seen It All", with Thom Yorke, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song.
The film is set in Washington State in 1964 and focuses on Selma Ježková (Björk), a Czech immigrant who has moved to the United States with her son, Gene Ježek (Kostic). They live a life of poverty as Selma works at a factory with her good friend Kathy, who she nicknames Cvalda (Deneuve). She rents a trailer home on the property of town policeman Bill Houston (Morse) and his wife Linda Houston (Seymour). She is also pursued by the shy but persistent Jeff (Stormare) who also works at the factory.
What no one in Selma's life knows is that she has a hereditary degenerative disease which is gradually causing her to go blind. She has been saving up every penny that she makes (in a tin can in her kitchen) to pay for an operation which will prevent her young son from suffering the same fate.
To escape the misery of her daily life Selma accompanies Cvalda to the local cinema where together they watch fabulous Hollywood musicals (or more accurately, Selma listens as Cvalda describes them to her, to the aggravation of the other theater patrons, or acts out the dance steps upon Selma's hand using her fingers). In her day-to-day life, when things are too boring or upsetting, Selma slips into daydreams or perhaps a trance-like state where she imagines the ordinary circumstances and individuals around her have erupted into elaborate musical theater numbers. These songs, as do many of Björk's songs, use some sort of real life noise (from factory machines buzzing to the sound of a flag rapping against a flag pole in the wind) as an underlying rhythm.
Unfortunately, Selma slips into one such trance while working at the factory. When her machine breaks she is fired from her job. Soon Jeff and Cvalda begin to realize that Selma can barely see at all. Additionally, Bill reveals to Selma that his materialistic wife, Linda, has exhausted all of his savings and asks Selma for a loan, which she declines to give. He regrets telling Selma his secret, so to comfort Bill, Selma reveals her secret blindness, hoping that together they can share one another's secret. Bill then hides in the corner of Selma's home, knowing she can't see him, and watches as she puts some money in her kitchen tin.
The next day when Selma comes home she finds the tin is empty. She goes next door to report the theft to Bill and Linda only to hear Linda discussing how Bill has brought home their safe deposit box to count their savings. She additionally reveals that Bill has "confessed" his affair with Selma, and that Selma must move out immediately. Knowing that Bill was broke and that the money he is counting must be hers, she confronts him and attempts to take the money back. He draws a gun on her and in a struggle he is wounded.
Linda discovers the two of them and, assuming that Selma is attempting to steal the money, runs off to tell the police at Bill's command. Bill then begs Selma to take his life, telling her that this will be the only way she will ever reclaim the money that he stole from her. Selma shoots at him several times, but due to her blindness manages to only maim Bill further. In the end she performs a coup de grâce with the safe deposit box. (In one of the scenes, Selma slips into a trance and imagines that Bill's corpse stands up and slow dances with her, urging her to run to freedom.) She does, and takes the money to the Institute for the Blind to pay for her son's operation before the police can take it from her.
Selma is caught and eventually put on trial. It is here that she is pegged as a Communist sympathizer and murderess. Although she tells as much truth about the situation as she can, she refuses to reveal Bill's secret, saying that she had promised not to. Additionally, when her claim that the reason she didn't have any money was because she had been sending it to her father in Czechoslovakia is proven false, she is convicted and given the death penalty.
Cvalda and Jeff eventually put the pieces of the puzzle together and get back Selma's money, using it instead to pay for a trial lawyer who can free her. Selma becomes furious and refuses the lawyer, opting to face the death penalty rather than letting her son go blind. In the end Selma is hanged.
Lars von Trier differentiates the musical sequences from the rest of the film by using static cameras and by brightening the colours.
Actress Björk, who is known primarily as a contemporary composer, had rarely acted before, and has described the process of making this film as so emotionally taxing that she would not appear in any film ever again (although in 2005, she appeared in Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9). She had disagreements with the director over the content of the film, wanting the ending to be more uplifting. Deneuve and others have described her performance as feeling rather than acting. Björk has said that it is a misunderstanding that she was put off acting by this film; rather, she never wanted to act but made an exception for Lars von Trier.
The musical sequences were filmed simultaneously with over 100 digital cameras so that multiple angles of the performance could be captured and cut together later, thus shortening the filming schedule.
Björk lies down on a stack of birch logs during the "Scatterheart" sequence. In Icelandic and Swedish, "Björk" means "birch". Lars von Trier thought it would be fun to put it in the film.
A Danish TMY class locomotive (owned by Swedish train operator TÅGAB, a shortline) was painted in the American Great Northern scheme for the movie, and not repainted afterward. A T43 class locomotive was repainted too, though never used in the movie.
The film was praised for its stylistic innovations: Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times stated that "It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture. and Edward Guthmann from the San Francisco Chronicle wrote "It's great to see a movie so courageous and affecting, so committed to its own differentness.
However, criticism was directed at its storyline: Jonathan Foreman of the New York Post described the film as "meretricious fakery" and called it "so unrelenting in its manipulative sentimentality that, if it had been made by an American and shot in a more conventional manner, it would be seen as a bad joke.