Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Harmonies in the Limelight: A ‘Dancer in the Dark,’ forever dreaming of singing and dancing in the light

Björk sees it all in this jarring, life-affirming epic that questions what it’s all for.


Lars von Trier emerged as a filmmaker who experimented with intertwining the avant-garde and melodramatic. He and Thomas Vinterberg penned the Dogme 95 manifesto, which outlined a new generation of art house creativity. It called for all camerawork to be handheld, denounced superficial action and prohibited optical work and filters, amongst other rules. Independent films after the 1995 conception of the Dogme 95 movement, especially those from von Trier, were not all strictly a part of the movement but remained mostly inspired by its goals and guidelines. “Breaking the Waves” (1996) is a prominent and majestic example of the style in action. “Dancer in the Dark” (2000) is possibly the strangest example, while also being one of the most remarkable.

In 2000, Icelandic singer Björk was coming off the critical success of her record “Homogenic” and one year away from releasing what would become her gorgeous, tender opus,  “Vespertine.” One thing that remained unrealized by wider audiences was her acting prowess. She gained little to no notice for her stunning work in Nietzchka Keene’s “The Juniper Tree” (1990). Yet, it seemed her collaboration with von Trier on a musical featuring the off-kilter tones of a classic Björk record was the only missing ingredient in garnering more attention for the star’s impressive acting abilities.

In the end, the product crafted by von Trier and Björk was indelibly heartbreaking. The narrative of “Dancer in the Dark” drives a stake right through the core of anything bearing a soul. The film depicts Selma (Björk), a single mother and Czech immigrant working in blue-collar America. However, the progression of the story details her impending march towards blindness. With her son also holding the possibility of going blind, Selma becomes desperate for money. The search for the ability to secure her son’s future while harboring the ill-fated future of her own degenerating eyesight is where much of the narrative’s tragedy lies.

In terms of musicality, the song sequences are absolutely sublime. The famed scene on a train featuring Selma and Jeff (Peter Stormare) as they sing “I’ve Seen it All” is powerful beyond levels of comprehension. The song is a desperate last breath of fresh air. It’s a final chance for Selma to revel in all the good and gaze upon some shade of light before the rest of her life is plunged into terminal darkness. Jeff's musical utterance, “You've never been to Niagara Falls” and Selma's response, "I have seen water/It’s water, that's all,” when understood for its poignant message, makes it so easy to be enraptured by emotion. The seemingly simple lyrics capture the experience of being satisfied with existence when all seems intrinsically terrible.

The feeling of embracing the world, even if it’s not what we set out for, is what makes “Dancer in the Dark” such a moving expression. The film is a tale of the simplistic ideologies of love and loss. It contains both and melds them so we feel everything all at once. It’s a bitter story, but it affirms the idea of how life itself is a bitter thing, and how it's a cold world out there.