Dancer in the Dark premiered in Cannes in 2000 with a lot of expectation surrounding it, due in part to the fact that director Lars Von Trier has a tradition of bringing great films to the Croisette (Breaking the Waves won the Special Jury Award in 1996, and Europa also won special mentions in 1991). The movie had some previous publicity thanks to acclaimed singer Björk—who had the lead in the film—and the reputed clashes between her and Von Trier. Dancer in the Dark ended up winning two top honors at the festival: the Palm D’Or and the Best Actress award for Björk (whose song, I’ve seen it All, from the soundtrack, was also nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category).
The film revolves around Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant factory worker. She sublets a small trailer in the yard of an American family, in 1950s rural America (when the witch hunting for communists was in full bloom, which is noticeable as the story unravels). Selma is going blind due to a hereditary genetic condition, and knows that her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic), will suffer the same fate if he does not get specialist surgery. She works long hours in a factory, plus night shifts and other jobs, so she can save as much money as possible to pay for Gene’s operation.
Her only escape is her love of musicals: in her few spare hours she is also training for the lead part in a local presentation of The Sound of Music. And although she can’t see anymore, she attends matinees of Busby Berkeley movies with her friend Cathy (played by Catherine Deneuve). The drama starts to unfold the moment that Bill (David Morse), a police officer and also Selma’s landlord, steals her saved money. It’s a downward spiral for Selma from that point on.
Filmed on digital video by Robby Müller—who also shot Breaking the Waves—and choreographed by Vincent Patterson, the film intersects Selma’s bleak life with glorious musical numbers, meant to represent her escape from reality (beautifully illustrated in the number I’ve Seen it All, where the audience come to terms with Selma’s blindness).
Dancer in the Dark ends up being more than just a traditional musical thanks to Von Trier’s ability to film stories that require a leap of faith. In much the same way we had to believe in Bess, Emily Watson’s character, in Breaking the Waves, and her ultimate sacrifice, Selma’s character requires the same belief from us: all her hardship, all her pain, are meant to equally save someone. Björk ends up being the soul of the film in more than one sense—her performance is so terribly heartfelt and painfully real, that you can’t help being moved—she embodies all that mothers stand for, and in the musical numbers, her voice and sheer presence shine through. Also responsible for the soundtrack (with the help of her usual collaborator, LFO’s Mark Bell), Björk deservedly won praise and awards for the film. The rest of the supporting cast is equally top notch, from Catherine Deneuve (who crumbles her usual icy visage in the fnal moments of the film), to David Morse’s Bill, Peter Stormare as the loveable Jeff and Cara Semour’s Linda (Bill’s wife, who lives under the erroneous belief that all is well in her household).
Dancer in the Dark is a film that stays with you, not only for its intensity and drama, but also because of its beauty and otherworldly moments where Selma, like the audience, escapes from her everyday life.