Dancer in the Dark is a musical written and directed by Lars von Trier. It stars Bjork as a Czechoslovakian immigrant named Selma Jezkova, who works in a factory and is slowly going blind.
Cut for spoilers and further discussion. Please stop reading if you haven’t seen the film.
We’ve all seen a handful of tragic musicals, but unlike most musicals, Dancer in the Dark‘s numbers occur in Selma’s head. (Save for the “next to the last song”, which Selma sings out loud but is truncated by her hanging – a genius albeit heartbreaking stroke from Von Trier.) The characters don’t spontaneously burst into song; the musical numbers are daydreams, they are Selma’s alternate lives. She shoots her friend, and in her head they dance together and she is forgiven. The musical numbers are shot with a steady camera and brighter colors, because they are the more attractive events. (At the end of “Cvalda”, Selma cuts herself on a machine.)
The film begins and ends on Bjork’s performance, and what a performance. She is luminous. It is such an understated, heartfelt interpretation. And how devastating is it to watch her sing “My Favorite Things” to an air vent, trying hard not to cry?
I’ve been listening to the soundtrack before I got the chance to watch the film in full, and “I’ve Seen It All” remains a favorite. It is a haunting foreshadowing of things to come (I’ve seen a man killed by his best friend/And lives that were over before they were spent). Selma is resigned. She has accepted her fate. (I’ve seen what I was – I know what I’ll be/I’ve seen it all – there is no more to see)
What else? When I saw Joel Grey (Cabaret) I clapped my hands.
The film ends with a drawn curtain, mirroring a curtain fall. Selma says she leaves before the last song in a musical, because then the musical will just go on and on. She never gets to finish her song.
If living is seeing, I’m holding my breath
In wonder I wonder what happens next
A new world, a new day to see, see, see
To see, see, see