Singing the Last Song: Dancer in the Dark (2000)


To view Dancer in the Dark click here.

Long before he was famously excoriated by the press for his remarks at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, director and reliable provocateur Lars von Trier was already a familiar face at the annual event with a string of awards under his belt including the Cannes Grand Prix for Breaking the Waves (1996) and the Prix du Jury for Europa (1991). Anticipation was riding high in May of 2000 when the film he dubbed the third in his “Golden Heart” trilogy appeared in public for the first time (following Breaking and his explicit, button-pushing The Idiots in 1998): Dancer in the Dark, his first musical. Publicity at the time centered on the use of over a hundred digital cameras to capture the elaborate musical sequences, but in retrospect it would be other factors that contributed to the film’s legacy after it went home with the Palme d’Or that year. Now streaming here as part of a series of Cannes-winning films, it’s still a dazzling and troubling film that sinks its teeth into you and won’t let go for days.

Anyone who saw this film in the theater likely remembers what it was like laying eyes on it for the first time; Fine Line Features scored a major coup getting this film and opened it on a more ambitious scale than usual for them, with curiosity running high based on the filmmaker’s wildly unpredictable track record. Incredibly, The Idiots has still never been released on home video in the United States and was only screened here with black censorship bars; that would prove to be von Trier’s only legitimate entry in the briefly popular Dogme 95 film movement he helped kick off with Thomas Vinterberg in Europe (most famously represented by 1998’s The Celebration). (To view other Dogme 95 examples, click here.) Now defunct and largely considered a cinematic footnote, but certainly influential today in the age of omnipresent cameras, Dogme 95 featured a list of ten rules involving on-location shooting, natural sound and light, handheld camerawork and no “genre movies” or “superficial action” (which proved to be real sticking points for filmmakers trying to qualify). Dancer in the Dark isn’t an official Dogme 95, but the film is still heavily indebted to it with its raw, often dizzying handheld digital camerawork and almost unbearable sense of intimacy and realism outside of the musical sequences (which alone would be enough to disqualify it at the time).


Seen today, it’s still a difficult film for some people to swallow, even those who love it. I recommended this to a friend who was a big fan of Björk, and though he loved it, he said he was completely shattered and felt out of sorts for a few days after watching the unforgettable story of Selma, a Washington state factory worker whose degenerating eyesight is a harbinger of what is to come for her young son. Von Trier famously never visited the actual United States, instead stating of his films set there that he was creating his own interpretation of America on film rather than something strictly realistic. That reached a stylized apotheosis of sorts with two films of an incomplete trilogy, Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), which turn American into a completely abstract piece of theater.

What really lingers for me about Dancer in the Dark is how it feels like such a strange, detached portrait of Americana, with familiar faces like David Morse and musical legend Joel Grey placed against the backdrop of Danish and Swedish locations posing as the Pacific Northwest. The whole film feels damp, depressed and uneasy, even during the musical numbers; the “catchiest” of the bunch, the Oscar-nominated “I’ve Seen It All” (which prompted Björk to wear the single most legendary piece of fashion in Academy Awards history, a full swan dress), is jaded and resigned, reflecting Selma’s thoughts on seeing all the world has to offer before her vision fades away to nothingness. It’s especially jarring in the film version, which she performs on a train track bridge with Peter Stormare (an actor who usually bugs me a bit with his affected style, but he’s fine here), which is a far cry from the more studio-polished version you can hear on Björk’s Selmasongs tie-in album as a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (whose odd film connections continue with his scoring of the upcoming semi-remake of Suspiria [2017]). As a commentary on Hollywood musicals (and even three famous French ones thanks to the casting here of Catherine Deneuve, this is a long way from the MGM productions idolized in Selma’s head. The music is beautiful but chaotic, sincere but doomed. Just like our protagonist.


Thanks to its placement in the von Trier canon, this film is now usually cited as evidence of his brutal treatment of his female heroines; Björk’s own comments during and after its release didn’t help things, with journalists interpreting her statements that she didn’t intend to act again as evidence that he had traumatized her and that she was suffering from a kind of thespian PTSD. She later tried to clarify that she wasn’t normally one to seek out acting roles at all (thus, no more acting roles planned at the time) but was lured in by the challenge of bringing this musically dynamic role to life, but by then the damage was done. Immediately critics started drawing a line between this film and Breaking the Waves, which features Emily Watson’s sweet-natured Bess embarking on one of the most punishing tests of faith ever put on film, and used this as a kind of battering ram against him for the next two years. That’s also something to keep in mind with his next full feature, Dogville, which – to avoid any spoilers – could almost be read as Selma and Bess’s revenge in the most shocking and cathartic sense imaginable. I think now it’s easier to see these films as extensions of von Trier’s own personality, with his self-confessed bouts of depression, which he literalized in the cataclysmic Melancholia (2011), as fuel for the women in his films who veer from the most ecstatic highs of love and musical rapture to the depts of utter, devastating personal sacrifice for those they love. It’s not the prettiest of cinematic worlds to inhabit, but it’s one well worth exploring.

Nathaniel Thompson

1 Response Singing the Last Song: Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Posted By George : May 25, 2017 5:18 pm

One of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. And definitely worth seeing.

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