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Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark

DancerIntheDark [1]4,178 words

I (Minor Spoilers)

There is no other musical like Dancer in the Dark; there is no other film like Dancer in the Dark. The cinematography, the atmosphere, the acting, even the sentimentality of the film are all in some way unique. The result is a work of art that offers something entirely different from anything else, namely a character portrayal that captures at once the wild idealism and the naive, sweet, supernatural innocence of the heroine. 

We are inevitably reminded of Bess from Breaking the Waves, who shared that same otherworldly purity, that same selflessness, but with added dimensions of inner strength, conscientious independence, and purposefulness. This is because, again, even in comparison with other Lars von Trier films, Dancer in the Dark is different.

Not so different as to elude the same themes as the other two films in the Golden Hearts trilogy, however, as our reference to Bess already indicates. There is indeed the same inner vs. outer dynamic, the same struggle between an interior moral integrity and an exterior moralism that seeks to impose its authority upon an individual who does not necessarily conform to the rules of said authority; it is, in the conception of LvT, Apollo and Dionysus all over again, the seemingly irreconcilable divide between a fruitful, blossoming individuality and a sterile, uncomprehending social order. The fact that that “social order” is in this case American contributes an extra critique, one which somewhat less than subtly reveals the director’s attitude towards the “land of the free.”

Selma Jezkova (Björk) is a Czech immigrant who moved to the United States with her son Gene. The year is 1964, and Selma, with Gene’s father not so much as mentioned, works tirelessly at a factory to support them on her own. She is romantically pursued by her friend Jeff, who also works at the factory, and who wants to help support Selma. She stubbornly refuses his advances, saying that, “If I wanted to have a boyfriend it would be you, Jeff. I just don’t have time for a boyfriend right now.” This is an early example of Selma’s exceptional sense of independence, even to the point of creating more hardship for herself. When Jeff gives Gene a bicycle for her birthday, Selma’s instinct is to refuse the gesture; it is only when she sees how happy her son is on the bike that she accepts the gift.

The first plot point is introduced when we learn that Selma is suffering from a hereditary disease that will swiftly render her completely blind. This of course means that Gene will endure the same fate, which is why Selma works so hard, that is, to pay for an operation that will cure him and allow him to live a full and able life. Other than her son, Selma’s principal love and joy is dancing and music, and even though she is not the best dancer or the most attractive one at the drama class she attends, her enthusiasm for it excels all others, which endears her to the director. As her blindness increases, we see the distress this produces in her, mainly because she can no longer perform her role as she once could; she is no longer who she was, or who she wished to be.

After it becomes clear that she can no longer perform Maria, the lead role that she loved, Selma tragically tells the director that she cannot do it, that her “heart wasn’t in it.” This obviously stuns the director, who says, “I thought you lived for music. So you’ve only been pretending this whole time?” Selma has no alternative but to answer in the affirmative, that she has only been pretending, when in reality she was nearest her true self on the stage and in the music. The director nevertheless finds a much smaller role for her, a nun who merely opens a gate, and suggests that he could even have her dance a little bit, even though it is not in the script. Selma responds with delight, “She could be a little humorous once in a while, even though she’s a nun!” The director then says, “You will always be my perfect Maria,” an allusion to St. Mary, whose perfect sinlessness is reflected in Selma, a fact that becomes crucial later in the film.

While her sense of sight as a sensual faculty has all but gone, Selma’s interior vision is stronger than ever, almost as though something that inhibits viewing the world in the outer sense conversely clarifies the world in the inner sense. In any case, Selma “daydreams” from time to time, and in these dreams she is in a musical, where the ordinary and mundane routines become lively, excited dance routines; the ordinary is transformed into something rare and artistic by virtue of her keen inner vision. In the factory, for example, the banging and the whirring of the machinery become rhythm and melody, an assembly line orchestra of iron and power; through Selma’s imagination the cacophony of industry becomes a symphony of modernity in her capacity for turning something ugly into something beautiful.

An even more instructive example of this is found in arguably the most impressive dance scene in the film, when Selma sings “I’ve Seen it All.” In a lyrical rendition of a Platonic or Vedic sort of idealism, Selma sings of the primacy of the idea over the empirical or sensible impressions of that idea; the senses merely supply the outer shapes of something that has much more value as an intellectual substance. “Have you seen the Great Wall?” Jeff asks, to which Selma answers: “All walls are great if the roof doesn’t fall.” China’s world wonder is essentially of no greater value than the walls that shelter us at night, because it is born of the same idea; there is fundamentally nothing different between them, only in their material expression. Selma presently reinforces her vocation as a seer, a profound mystic aware of the transience and meaninglessness of the sensible domain in itself; she saw the world once, therefore she has seen it all:

I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen the dark
I’ve seen the brightness in one little spark.
I’ve seen what I chose and I’ve seen what I need,
And that is enough, to want more would be greed.
I’ve seen what I was and I know what I’ll be
I’ve seen it all — there is no more to see!

Selma and Gene live on the property of Bill and Linda Houston, an ordinary policeman and his wife. Together they represent a very stereotypical American wedded couple, especially from a European perspective: friendly and good-natured, but with a highly materialistic outlook that dictates how they live their lives. In one telling scene, Selma is talking with the Houstons, and she says, “In Czechoslovakia I saw a film, and they were eating candy from a tin just like this. And I thought to myself, how wonderful it must be to live in the United States.” Linda responds, “Our house looks like a movie, doesn’t it? Bill gives me a lot of money.” This is a transparently significant revelation of not only American consumerism, but of its attraction to people from much poorer places; the glitter and the gold appeal all the more splendidly and fantastically to those growing up in relative squalor.

Another, more implicitly “Americanistic” theme becomes apparent when we consider Selma’s fixation on happiness — not her own happiness, of course, but that of others. There was the already mentioned instance of allowing Jeff to give Gene the bike when she saw how happy it made him, but Selma also gives her friend Kathy the nickname of “Cvalda” (chubby), which she translates as “a big and happy person,” because that is what she prizes in her friend, i.e., her happiness. Moreover, when they are watching a musical in the cinema together, Selma says of the dancers on the screen, “they look happy,” as though that were the most important thing about them. This is all indicative of the famous “pursuit of Happiness” that subsists at the roots of the American consciousness. Selma came to America to pursue happiness, not for herself, but for her son, for Kathy, for others, which perhaps stands in contrast to the thoroughly individualistic and utilitarian pursuit that characterizes the “typical American.”

For LvT that “typical American” is Bill Houston, a generally well-intentioned man but one who is badgered and henpecked by his wife into buying more and more needless, superficial things: “Linda, she spends and spends.” In a conversation with Bill, Selma explains how she hates the last song of any which musical, because she knows that it means that the film is about to end; she explains how she “cheats” by leaving after the second last song, so that she can imagine that the film never ends, that the dancers keep dancing and dancing. Bill then reveals to Selma his secret that he is deeply in debt, that his inheritance is gone, and that his salary cannot keep up with his wife’s spending; he is financially ruined, and the bank will soon foreclose on their house. Selma, being naive, and longing to comfort her friend, tells Bill her own secret, that she is very nearly blind, and that she has very nearly saved the right amount to pay for Gene’s operation. Bill and Selma agree that “mum’s the word,” that they will keep each other’s secrets.

Not long after, however, Bill asks Selma for her money to stall the bank, promising to pay her back in a month. Selma of course refuses, saying that the money is not her own but Gene’s, prompting Bill to vaguely suggest killing himself. Even if Bill admits that he was just joking, Selma expresses her horror at such a statement: “You mustn’t joke about such things.” Death, the sudden finality, the last song is especially terrifying to Selma, who is in love with life, joy, song, and expression; her pronounced and painstakingly won dexterity in happiness trembles before the great sadness that accompanies life’s end.

II (major spoilers)

Bill does not kill himself, but, after a conversation in Selma’s home, deceives the blind woman into thinking that he has left when really he stays long enough to see where Selma hides her money — and then steals it the next day.

The world in which these characters live makes them worse than who they really are. It is a system of hard numbers, of production prioritized over the producer, and of intemperate devotions to work. Thus the foreman Norman is compelled to fire Selma because she was too busy daydreaming to notice the work at hand, resulting in the break-down of a machine. Norman does not want to fire her; he likes Selma, but he is nevertheless forced to do so by faceless commands from above. It is moreover a system which rewards those who obey its intransigent orders with the fruits of hard work, material wealth, with the hearty recommendation to flaunt it. Thus the status that is given to Linda, who continually spends her husband’s money to increase their social position, but who unwittingly places them in tremendous debt as a result. Linda’s superficiality, encouraged by a culture of wealth, and Bill’s weakness before his wife and his inability to contradict the materialistic status quo, is what leads to his decision to steal Selma’s savings; his enslavement to prevailing social attitudes means that he forsakes social virtues in the interests of preserving his wife and their comfortable place in life.

What transpires next is the inevitable confrontation once Selma realizes that Bill has taken her money. During a scuffle in which Selma tries to retrieve it, Bill’s gun goes off, shooting himself in the leg. This inspires an epiphany on his part, as he realizes now he should merely have killed himself, and that Selma should kill him now. To get Selma to do it for him, indeed the only way to get innocent, sinless Selma to do it, Bill says that the only way to get her money back is to kill him. The moments following are dark, gruesome, and heart-breaking as Selma is effectively forced to butcher Bill before experiencing a moral assault upon her conscience for the first time; she is burdened with the momentous consequence of having killed someone, and she is faced with the accompanying moral question of whether it was murder, of whether it was a sin.

Selma works through that problem by daydreaming another musical sequence, a mesmerizing, haunting piece in which, as she is running away from Bill’s house and the scene of the crime, Selma pleads for forgiveness, and announces her guilt: “Silly Selma, you’re the one to blame.” She is forgiven first by Bill, who says, “I hurt you much more, so don’t you worry,” before dancing with her, and then by Linda, who helps her escape after informing her that she called the police. The song’s refrain is comprised of the words, “You just did what you had to do,” which is meaningfully sung by her son, emphasizing why she had to do what she did. This again illustrates how Selma’s full, vibrant inner life resolves the problems that she encounters in the wilderness of the outer world. Selma is not the victim of an illusory subjective state of mind, nor is she guilty of a solipsistic denial of reality to maintain her own innocence and well-being; she is conscious of the perils, she sees the potential crisis she has caused, but her highly developed imagination is able to reconcile the havoc she has created with others with her own position, and with objective truth, so she can rightfully be at peace with herself, with what she has done.

Selma is caught, of course, and goes into police custody during drama practice. Her trial is miserably one-sided, as the evidence and the witness testimonies are completely against her, not to mention the sense of the story. Selma says that it was not Bill’s money she took from him, but her own, yet because she still does not want her son to know about his sharing her disease, she has to lie and say that the money is for her father. When she tells the court his name, however, the man is tracked down, and is in fact a musical actor famous in Czechoslovakia, who of course has no relation to Selma. She is moreover forced to conceal the reason why Bill asked to be killed by her, why Bill stole her money, because she is still beholden to the promise she made to him — mum’s the word. Such is her innocence and child-like perfection that Selma is unable to break the promise made to a dead man, even at her own mortal peril. There is another musical sequence during the trial through which Selma flees the dismal aura of the court, the inevitability of her doom; she dreams of her escape, singing, “You will always be there to catch me when I fall.” The court rises, however, and sentences her to death.

Prison proves to be an inhospitable place for Selma in a different way than most — because there is no sound. Selma relies on sounds of the outside world to spark the fire of her inner world; if there is nothing fertile to draw upon beyond herself, she shrinks, reduced to an ordinary blind person with the senses of her vision and her imagination gone: “It’s so quiet here.” It is as though she is now deaf as well as blind, but it is crucially her inner vision that is incapacitated, leading to an unprecedented crisis for her. She tries singing in the “real” world, yet it fails, and she dissolves into miserable tears. And then she hears the hymns from the chapel through the ventilation system, and greedily listens as a thirsty woman might hold her tongue out at the rain, lapping up whatever she can get. Her imaginative life is starving, and because she can only feed it the smallest morsels, the resultant song is pitiable, sad, profoundly simple, and overwhelmed with pathos. She sings “These are a few of my favourite things” with such a primitive, premature happiness that it attains an uncommon poignancy in the context of both her situation and the bare instrumental accompaniment.

The truth of the stolen money soon becomes known, however, and it seems as though there is a happy ending for our heroine. Bill’s financial crisis is made apparent, and Jeff, the man that Selma spurned yet never gave up on her, traces the money to the clinic where Selma’s son is to have the operation when he is old enough. Selma is granted a stay, and an appeal is being considered in which all this new information would be brought to court. Yet the lawyer requires a fee, and all that Kathy can raise for him is the money meant for Gene’s operation. This defeats the entire purpose for Selma, though, who obviously rejects the lawyer’s services, and yells at Kathy that Gene needs his eyes more than he needs his blind, imprisoned mother.

So Selma is resigned to die, and so the time comes. Brenda, the prison guard who has already recognized Selma’s obvious innocence as an exceptional figure on death row, shows good-hearted compassion again, and comforts Selma, who shows tremendous dread in her cell. Brenda lifts her up, and tells her that, “We’ll make some noise. We’ll give you something to listen to.” A shaking Selma finally takes her first step, and it initiates the final musical sequence, which consists simply of Brenda counting out the 107 steps to the gallows as Selma sings some of them. The music is strict, martial, severe, amplifying the anxiety preceding the execution, but also ethereal and inviting, as though there is light yet ahead — light beyond the darkness of death, perhaps.

Selma collapses again, and shrieks when the officials put the hood over her, screaming that she cannot breathe. Brenda removes the hood, ignoring the words of the others, who insist that, “This is irregular, we have regulations.” Even the smallest human mercy is denied if it challenges the cold mechanism of the system, so the officials have to make a call to determine if the execution may proceed without the hood. As they are waiting Selma continues to cry, calling out Gene’s name, and then Kathy rushes up from the viewing area to kiss Selma and hands her Gene’s glasses, saying that he will never need them again. “You were right, Selma,” she says, “listen to your heart!”

Selma does exactly that, and, instead of using the “real” world to create a musical daydream as she usually does, Selma creates music herself; she hums a tone, and then she sings a song, which sounds out warm and beautiful in that frigid, hostile place. No longer bound to her own private realm, no longer restricted by the audio outside, Selma draws upon her powerful inner life to produce something inspired, untouchable, Her fear of the last song of the musical is gone, because she is no longer dependent on exterior motivations and happenings; the imminent fatality of the musical, of her life, the last song, is vanquished from her consciousness, because she has accomplished a pure selflessness and thereby fulfilled herself. Selma is in utter control of her destiny, of the musical of her life, which is why the following lines show on the screen after she falls:

They say it’s the last song
They don’t know us, you see
It’s only the last song
If we let it be.

This film is LvT’s first significant criticism of capitalistic America, and, compared with his later, more comprehensive attacks in Dogville and Manderlay, it is a fairly light criticism, especially in that there are characters who are good in spite of their society. But it is nevertheless a critique, and a hard-hitting one, as it strikes directly at the hollowness that characterizes the core of the “American dream,” and the Protestant work ethic which props it up. Good things will come to those who work hard, we are told, so as long as we keep our mind on the task at hand and follow the rules and regulations we will be rewarded. Poor Selma, however, whose imagination is far too active to totally commit herself to a monotonous factory job, and who spends every dime she makes on her son’s operation, is victimized for her selflessness, and especially for her honesty, as she is unable to keep her secret from Bill just as she is unable to confess Bill’s secret to the court.

Dancer in the Dark is a film where the character is at odds with his environment, as though he were removed from his home and relocated to some unnatural habitat. It shows a discordance between man and his surroundings, a divide whereby man’s nature is worsened, or rather a divide where man’s worst nature is encouraged. The virtues of Selma — honesty, happiness, innocence — are recognized only by her closest friends and in drama class, that is, the art world where ideals exist in a kind of rarefied purity unspoiled by the confusion of ordinary life. The ethics of some of the other characters, however — avarice, vanity, meanness — are rewarded by their being promoted in society through the high status of having wealth and a steady job. LvT’s America is driven by a mundane mentality that has no comprehension of an ideal; its virtues are strictly material, so if something does not advance one’s own cause or correspond to one’s job description, it is considered useless, because it is useless in the “real world.” So Bill takes advantage of blind Selma, because for the American ethos (as LvT conceives it anyway), stealing from someone and corrupting oneself morally is better than declaring bankruptcy, than losing one’s vain, cash-hungry wife and one’s place in the world. The hospitality and friendliness that he showed to Selma was a sham, because when his back is against the wall, he elects to save himself, even by damning his neighbor.

LvT also subtly plays off of the utilitarian philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, namely the “pursuit of happiness” idea which is so deeply instilled in the American consciousness. The notion that wealth is equal to happiness has become axiomatic therein because it is a necessary condition for the consumer-capitalist complex to thrive; to be wealthy is to be happy, but to be destitute is to be miserable, so naturally we want to work hard, do what we can to “get ahead,” and then to show off what we have earned to garner social favour.

Selma’s old coworker Norman claims that Selma had said that, “communism was better for human beings,” which is as heavy-handed as this film’s criticism gets, but it is important to note that it is not Selma herself who is shown saying this, but through the words of a third party. Selma is not, after all, ideological, but personal, musical, human. She might represent why communism may be better for the human being than free market capitalism, but she is herself innocent of any political pandering. LvT’s point is to introduce the idea, as though mischievously seeking to provoke a neocon backlash; he wants to establish a contrast between the individualistic Americans and the collectivistic Europeans in the interests of illustrating that America is not the world, that America’s is not the only way. This is evinced further by the lawyer’s subsequent attack against Selma, accusing her of showing “nothing but contempt for our great country,” which is LvT’s way of accusing the United States of arrogance, of their pride in supposing that the “greatness” of their country should be obvious to anyone and everyone. If they fail to acknowledge it, they are obviously a filthy Bolshevik.

Dancer in the Dark is the finale of the Golden Hearts trilogy and, just like Bess of Breaking the Waves and Karen of The Idiots, Selma exemplifies the tragic archetype, the innocent soul punished for no crimes of her own. It is in her perfect sinlessness, however, that Selma assumes a stronger relation to Christ, and, like Christ on the cross, she only achieves her destiny and reveals who she really is at the moment of her death; her work on earth is ended, and she can finally repose in the peace of her purpose’s completion: the health and happiness of her son and the overcoming of the world.

It is the most common of illusions to believe that one is really what one seems to be, and this universal illusion is corroborated throughout life by an ongoing deception of all our faculties. Nothing less than death is necessary to teach us that we are always deceived. At the moment our identity is revealed, inconceivable abysses will be uncovered before our true eyes — gaping depths both within and outside ourselves. — Léon Bloy