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Dancer in the Dark

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Dancer in the Dark (2000), directed by Lars von Trier

Roger Ebert for RogerEbert.com:

Dancer in the Dark is a brave throwback to the fundamentals of the cinema—to heroines and villains, noble sacrifices and dastardly betrayals. The relatively crude visual look underlines the movie’s abandonment of slick modernism.”

Peter Travers for Rolling Stone:

“There is real filmmaking excitement here. You could argue that Dancer is a hollow stunt, a musical trick out of Ally McBeal. But cold technology is no match for Björk’s vibrant humanity. If von Trier’s script fails to give verbal expression to Selma’s feelings for her son, it’s there in the wellspring of emotion Björk brings to Selma’s reality and her fantasy. And it’s there in the spark of music that is Selma’s victory over the dark. Björk gives a great performance—there’s magic in it—but perhaps due to von Trier’s punishing demands she says she won’t act again.”

Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

“Screen acting doesn’t get much more dire than this, or at least I really hope not. And there are few films which could aspire, or want to aspire to the extravaganza of unreflective emoting and pain that Lars von Trier cheerfully expects us to endure.”

Lucy’s user review on Letterboxd:

“i’ve never been so torn on a film: rarely do i feel both love and hate in almost perfect synchronicity. i hate this movie, i really do. i feel the hatred burning underneath my skin. but i also feel strangely impressed by it and i can’t look away, can’t write it off. […] björk as a whole is magical in her tragedy: this movie only works when it works because of her. it would be nothing without her. the introduction of every song, building off ordinary sounds. the way she flows through her momentary dream world, lost and giving it all to feel that temporary rush of hope and comfort in song and dance. it’s completely ridiculous and shouldn’t work at all (and it still Kind of… doesn’t) but it also does. it really does”


Here’s a selection of texts exchanged between my sister and I while watching Dancer in the Dark:

  • “Oh yeah. This is gonna be a really long uncomfortable movie.”
  • “Björk is delightful”
  • “I simultaneously want to be her and feel bad for her character”
  • “I forgot how much I love Björk”
  • “She is mother nature in human form”
  • “It’s already so sad”
  • “If you read about the film’s production it’ll only get worse”
  • “I don’t like this guy”
  • “I don’t like any of the men”
  • “Now that you mention it, yeah. They all suck”
  • “‘Dudes Ain’t Great’ should be the name of a song”
  • “What’s his deal”
  • “Got a real vibe to him, doesn’t he”
  • “Oh man. Only like a third in. Already so sad.”
  • “I’m not liking where this is going”
  • “Björk. Be careful”
  • “I don’t remember how it ends but I remember crying a lot”
  • “Checks out so far”
  • “Well, there go the tears”
  • “Oh no. I hate this part.”
  • “Oh my heart”
  • “Nooooo”
  • “Omg”
  • “Ifhhhghgddv”
  • “This is terribly sad, but I like the song and dance parts”
  • “I like those parts too”
  • “I’m sad”
  • “Sorry”
  • “Why would her friend be there”
  • “Why didn’t Björk get every award ever made?”
  • “It got bad reviews even”
  • “Maybe people just don’t want to get this level of sad”

Reviews for the film sure have been mixed since its release, but a few consistent threads run through them that I can get behind: Dancer in the Dark is as emotionally manipulative as story as might ever have been released, and no one’s ever really ready for this level of sad.

As was mentioned in the excerpt from Peter Travers’ review above, Björk never returned to star in a major release following Dancer in the Dark, leaving her role as Selma Ježková as her last (I think it’s fair to say Matthew Barney’s 2005 film Drawing Restraint 9 doesn’t count). It’s only been in recent years that she confirmed specifics about why: von Trier repeatedly put his arms around her or stroked her on set against her wishes, “exploded” and broke a chair in front of other crew members when he was asked to stop, made repeated sexual advances toward her, “threatened to climb from his room’s balcony over to [hers] in the middle of the night with a clear sexual intention,” fabricated stories about her behavior to the press, and portrayed her as being difficult as a way to take heat off himself. I don’t know that this information makes the film any more sad than it already is, but it sure does make it feel gross—like fuzzy day-old mouth grime spread over the teeth of an already sad clown.

Björk is remarkable in the film. She embodies a childlike essence throughout, from her first scene through on to her imprisonment, that would be hard for anyone to replicate. At first I didn’t think it was because of her acting ability as much as it might stem from her persona, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Take the court room scene, for example. When Selma is defending the secrecy surrounding why Bill might have plead for her to kill him, she does so coyly, sugary in a way that suggests pretense which might otherwise communicate as (yet another) one of the film’s overtly soap opera-esque moments. But I believed Selma when she said she couldn’t share a secret because she promised not to. And that’s the measure by which this whole film seems to add up for me. It’s a put-on, with each scene building toward a graphic and tragic ending that only makes sense within the demented absurdity of the timeline that preceded it.

I’m choosing to remember this as Björk’s film, and not von Trier’s. Her music is at the heart of it, and her character is that which reveals itself as the saving grace to such a dire and joyless plot. Without her musical self there would be no theatrical self, and it’s from that identity which she draws the basis for her Selma. It’s also through the lens of her music that her acting makes the most sense. In that world, such a line as “I’m a fountain of blood / In the shape of a girl / You’re the bird on the brim / Hypnotized by the whirl” fits no differently than the reality of her character of Selma Ježková does.